The Enoch Pratt Free Library could easily become a fiscal hostage in the ongoing mayoral campaign if the candidates aren't careful.
Two months ago City Council President Mary Pat Clarke introduced a resolution asking that the library be given enough money to maintain all services at current levels.
That won't happen under the budget Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke proposed Wednesday. His $19.6 million allocation to the Pratt amounts to a $635,000 increase. But it's $1.4 million less than what officials say they need to avoid cutbacks.
Gordon Krabbe, director of administrative services, says the library's budget request includes inflation costs, an anticipated 2 percent pay raise for all city employees and the hiring of additional security guards at some crime-vulnerable branches.
The request also includes $1.8 million for books and materials. That won't go far. Mr. Krabbe says the library's purchasing power has been cut 50 percent by inflation over the past 10 years, but the materials budget has increased very little.
Carla D. Hayden has made great progress since becoming the Pratt's director in 1993. The Govans and Patterson Park branches have been reopened. All branches now have Saturday hours. And the SAILOR project has brought the library on-line with the worldwide Internet computer system.
George Needham, director of the Public Library Association, says libraries across the nation are undergoing a modest revival. A new main library is under construction in Cleveland. Denver last month opened its completely renovated main library. Oakland, Calif., has amended its charter to set aside more money for its library.
But in Baltimore, the opposite is threatening to happen. If the library is funded at the mayor's proposed level, instead of 35 vacancies being filled, 10 jobs will be eliminated and branch hours may have to be cut.
Mr. Schmoke must be a cautious spender. Revenues are declining and Congress is threatening Draconian reductions in federal funding. But the fact that Mrs. Clarke is his opponent must not keep him from considering better funding for the Pratt if the money can be found.
The Pratt is not just a lender of books in a town Mr. Schmoke bills as "the city that reads." The library's adult illiteracy and children's homework programs have made it a warrior in the effort to improve the city's struggling schools. As such, the library deserves higher priority in the budget.