Targeted Fort Worth libraries would stay open three days a week under foundation's plan

FORT WORTH -- A private foundation offered to run three public libraries that have been slated for closure, raising the ante from the public as residents and interest groups scramble to help the city lessen the impact of looming budget cuts.

The Fort Worth Public Library Foundation raises several hundred thousand dollars a year, most of it intended to improve the Central Library and to offer literacy and college preparatory courses.

Foundation CEO Betsy Pepper offered Tuesday to raise enough money to operate the Meadowbrook, North Side and Ridglea branch libraries, which are scheduled to close later this year. The foundation would run the branches three days a week for a year, Pepper said.

"We believe these libraries are precious to the neighborhoods in which they serve the people," Pepper said.

City Council members accepted the offer warmly, although it's far from finalized.

"I think we need to seriously look at your recommendation," Mayor Mike Moncrief said.

Councilman Danny Scarth added, "I can think of half a dozen reasons why it can't work -- I'd ask our staff to find reasons why it can work."

Fort Worth is trying to close a $73 million gap between its expenses and its revenues in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. City Manager Dale Fisseler has proposed a series of cuts, including merging the parks and library systems and cutting "soft services" such as support for the Human Relations Commission and public health outreach.

Several nonprofit groups that support the parks and other services called on the city to maintain those services.

"We'd like you to remove the merger from next year's budget and study the feasibility of this merger in other communities," said Adelaide Leavens, executive director of Streams & Valleys, a nonprofit that supports beautification along the Trinity River.

The city came close to closing two library branches last year, but they were kept open after public outcry. This year, Library Director Gleniece Robinson began laying the foundation for the closures at the beginning of the summer. The cuts would save $1.2 million in operating costs.

Robinson said she's eager to look at the proposal.

Pepper said the library foundation could operate the three branches for far less than that, relying on volunteers and part-time employees.

The foundation was formed in 1993 to raise money for renovations at the Central Library. It raised about $5 million for that campaign and has since raised money for other library programs, including a computer system and renovations at the North Side Library.

There are several examples of privately run libraries. The library in University Park, a wealthy Dallas suburb, opened in 2002 and is operated by a nonprofit corporation.

Private libraries are more common in New England; four of the five libraries in Dennis, Mass., are run by nonprofit groups, according to their websites. They still receive some public funds for books.

"It's a very New England kind of thing, where they were started by the ladies' aid society and so forth," said Nancy Symington, director of the Dennis Memorial Library.

Symington gets about half its funding from the town of Dennis, which has a population of about 13,000. A good portion of the government funding goes for the cost of books and membership in a local library consortium. The library relies mostly on a staff of volunteers, she said.

"We have to be constantly fundraising," she said. Still, she said, "Closing libraries in these difficult economic times is so shortsighted."

There is a history of nonprofit groups teaming up with cities to help fund libraries and library functions, said Gloria Meraz, director of communications with the Texas Library Association in Austin.

"There is so much love for libraries. It is understandable that a nonprofit group ... of well-intentioned and capable people want to assist in running the libraries," she said. "What is important is to make sure that libraries are open and strong. And it's important that public institutions created with local taxpayer money continue to operate within those parameters."

Closer to home, the nonprofit Fort Worth Zoological Association took over operation of the city zoo in 1991. The city still contributes over $5 million to zoo's operations.

Zoo officials have said they need the continued city subsidy because of the nature of private philanthropy; it's easier to raise money for buildings than for routine maintenance and operations.

Pepper said she's confident the library foundation can raise a continuous stream of money for operating costs.

"Our foundation donors are an unusual profile," she said.

Staff writer Anna M. Tinsley

contributed to this report.

Mike Lee, 817-390-7539