Residents urge Fort Worth to keep libraries open

FORT WORTH -- CJ Lechner wants city leaders to spare the Ridglea library.

Not just for himself, but for all the children who see the library as a refuge and would have nowhere to go if its doors were closed.

The Ridglea library is among three on the chopping block -- along with the Meadowbrook and Northside libraries -- as Fort Worth leaders grapple with the proposed 2011 budget.

"All those books ... everything about it is simply enjoyable," said Lechner, 14, a home-schooled ninth-grader. "A lot of kids can find sanctuary going to the library, even if it's just playing on the computer. ... Some kids would have absolutely nowhere to go without this library.

"If you took it away, what's left?"

Lechner was among more than a dozen residents who showed up Tuesday at City Hall to ask City Council members considering the budget proposal to spare services ranging from the three libraries to the last city pool still open.

Last week, City Manager Dale Fisseler proposed a $1.3 billion budget for the next year that closes a $73 million funding gap by eliminating some city jobs, laying off dozens of employees, closing three branch libraries and slashing funding for health inspections and services for the homeless.

It ends long-standing programs such as the one that lets the city buy back unused vacation from employees, rearranges various city departments and combines other departments. Ultimately, the proposal being considered leaves the city's property tax rate at 85.5 cents per $100 of assessed value but increases water and sewer bills 2.5 percent and raises fees.

Mayor Mike Moncrief said that nothing is a done deal yet, but the council will carefully review all its options.

"One thing that's not optional is balancing the budget," he said. "As we do it, it's not going to please everyone."

As residents brought up budget concerns, such as those that may affect the Human Relations Commission, Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks said potential savings must be closely examined. "While it's very important we make difficult decisions ... we need to make sure we aren't making stupid decisions," she said.

Lechner, who spoke during the first public hearing about the budget, said he realizes the city must make cuts to produce a balanced budget, so he proposed capping the funds used to buy new materials at libraries throughout the city, in order to "keep a revered library" open.

The Rev. Stephen Jasso, pastor of All Saints Catholic Church on Fort Worth's north side, asked city leaders to spare the Northside library, saying the loss of that facility could hurt countless students' education. "Please keep the Northside library open for us," he said.

On another issue, neighborhood leader Eunice Givens said she's worried that fees and higher water bills will mean that some people won't be able to pay their bills, and that trash will pile up and ultimately create more illegal dump sites. . Taking care of residents who are already in tough economic times would be "the 'Fort Worth way,' as you tell me," she told council members.

Jerry Horton, a 74-year-old Fort Worth woman, also called on city leaders to make smart choices.

She said she didn't think it is right for the community to spend millions of dollars on the "Trinity River Vision, which is not a necessity, but we can't keep one small pool open, nor the libraries. It's a sin."

Horton said there's one key place to turn to save money at the city.

"We need to cut at the top, not at the bottom," she said. "We need to cut salaries ... Then we can keep the libraries open for poor people who ride the bus or walk."

Also Tuesday, the council rejected all bids for an employee health clinic and fitness center because of the city's budget straits. Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610