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SAUGUS

Library ineligible for state grants

The Saugus Public Library is ineligible to receive grants from the state Board of Library Commissioners when the panel starts doling out money for this year.

The library's temporary closing in June, due to severe budget problems, stripped the library of its state certification, a key requirement for eligibility. A library must be open a minimum of 50.4 hours per week to qualify. Although Saugus has met that requirement since Labor Day, the state considers operating hours for the last fiscal year, which ended June 30.

"Hours are a very big factor," said Robert Maier, executive director of the state panel. "If they are able to maintain the 50.4 minimum this year, then they could well receive state aid next year."

The loss comes amid a chaotic chapter for the library. A flurry of staff resignations, including that of the longtime executive director, and pressure to meet state operating hours has strained a beloved town resource. Only five part-time workers staff the building, limiting the number of departments that can be open at once. With no money to pay a janitor, volunteers are helping to clean up after patrons.

"We're juggling everyone around," said Ewa Jankowska, the interim director and a 14-year employee. "I have to make sure that our desks are staffed properly for our patrons. I also have to protect the employees. They deserve to take lunch, vacation time. I can't work without payment."

The library's struggles are linked to the town's fiscal crunch. Saugus faced a $5.2 million deficit for this fiscal year after voters in April rejected a property tax increase. The library's $277,271 budget is about one-third the amount it needs to operate at full strength, officials say.

State library grants to Saugus are a small, but important, funding component. In addition to the minimum operating hours, a library must meet the state board's standards for local funding, which is linked to a community's population. If a library falls short on either count, it can apply for a waiver from library commissioners.

Saugus received waivers for each of the last four fiscal years, after several rounds of budget cuts reduced operating hours. In that time, the library received state aid totaling almost $95,000, including $22,933.62 for the 2007 fiscal year.

The sharp reduction in this year's budget led the library at first to open for limited hours. In July, the library was open for just 15 hours per week, and in August, 18.5 hours per week. In that time, 2,742 patrons used the facility, according to Jankowska. About one-third of the town's 26,000 residents hold library cards.

Under pressure from the state Board of Library Commissioners, the library took the bold leap of opening 50.4 hours per week after Labor Day. But the budget has not increased, so the library will run out of money in March, Jankowska said.

"It is risky," she said. "But, otherwise, we would just continue to struggle. I am counting money very carefully."

State officials are skeptical the risk will pay off. "The fact that they've achieved the 50.4 is a great achievement," Maier said. "But if they run out of money . . . and the library is closed down again, they've had only a partial achievement. They'd be right back where they were in June."

Jankowska hopes the town will find new revenues during the year for the library. She's encouraged that the town and its nine unions have agreed, in principle, to join the state Group Insurance Commission, which unions members must still vote on. That would save on healthcare costs, perhaps as early as January, she said.

"Maybe that will bring a savings. I am really hoping we get about $400,000, and that will put us back to our original budget. Our problems would be solved."

Since the library lost its certification, local residents no longer can borrow books from area libraries under the North of Boston Library Exchange system. But libraries in two neighboring communities have adopted special policies for Saugus residents.

Melrose is selling memberships to Saugus residents: $200 for a family, $150 for an individual and $50 for a senior citizen. So far, about 15 memberships have been purchased, said library director Dennis J. Kelley.

"This is really an accommodation to them," Kelley said. "They can have service, but they have to pay for it. They cannot expect the residents of Melrose to absorb the cost of their library."

The Lynn Public Library, which briefly lost its certification three years ago, is allowing Saugus residents to borrow books. But they cannot request to have them shipped to Saugus. They must visit the library on Lynn Common. So far, only a handful of residents have borrowed materials.

"It's worked out fine," said Nadine Mitchell, chief librarian in Lynn. "But I'm sure once things straighten out, they'll go back to their hometown library."

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.

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