Blalock’s Tenure Recently Marked By Budget Problems
By STEVEN GOODE | Courant Staff Writer
September 05, 2008
Louise Blalock, longtime chief librarian of the Hartford Public Library, unexpectedly announced her retirement Thursday. Blalock, 74, made the announcement at a quarterly meeting of the library's board of directors.
"It's been a great run," Blalock told the board. "The last bit of it was a bit tumultuous."
The meeting also focused on the ongoing saga of the Albany Avenue and Blue Hills branch closures since the first week of July.
Blalock, the National Librarian of the Year in 2001, oversaw the $42 million, glassy makeover of the library's main branch that added more space for children and families, an adult learning center, a technology lab and 100 new computers.
But she also came under fire earlier this year when a Courant investigation revealed that the library's flagship branch also was a place where people had sex, drank alcohol and used drugs in the bathrooms and where some employees reported feeling unsafe.
In recent months Blalock and the library board also have been sharply criticized for closing two neighborhood branches in an effort to help close an $870,000 budget gap.
Blalock told the board Thursday that she was grateful for the opportunity to serve city residents for 15 years. Later, she said the newspaper's critical coverage didn't factor into her decision to retire at the end of the year.
"If I were 60, I wouldn't retire," Blalock said. "There's a time for everything."
Board President Geraldine Sullivan said Thursday that she appreciated Blalock's work.
"Your vision has taken this library into the 21st century," Sullivan said.
Funding the closed library branches, however, remains a problem. In mid-August residents and board members believed an agreement had been reached with the city council and Mayor Eddie A. Perez's office to partially reopen the branches with $200,000 in city funding. But Perez, who maintained that the city had no money available, blocked that proposal, saying it violated the city charter.
Last week, Perez and Councilman Calixto Torres met with Blalock and Sullivan and offered them $50,000 to get the branches reopened, with the provision that the council and library board agree to meet after the audit of the library's budget is completed to identify an additional $150,000 in savings.
The proposal was met with skepticism at the board meeting Thursday.
"Ultimately, this money comes out of our budget," board member Paul Shipman said. "It then becomes a matter of the city council and mayor controlling library policy by withholding funds."
The board then discussed offering a compromise: accept the $50,000, provided that the library not be forced to cut any programs or services. But the board voted to hold off on sending a letter detailing the compromise until the audit, due to be completed next week, was finished.
The decision to hold off prompted criticism from several residents affected by the branch closures and Republican city Councilman Larry Deutsch.
"I am just stunned and disgusted. You just gave the mayor exactly what he wanted," said Sabrina Flintroy, adding that she and her children desperately need library services. "You're telling us we don't count."
The board then did an about-face, reopened the issue and voted 5-2 to go ahead and send the letter about the compromise to Perez.
Dissenting board member Stephen Goddard said he would have voted to send the letter if he thought there was any hope that the $150,000 would materialize and that the branches wouldn't have to be closed again in three months.
Later Thursday afternoon, Goddard's concerns were amplified by the city's announcement that it was facing an $8 million deficit from the last fiscal year.
And when asked to comment on the library board's proposed compromise, Perez spokeswoman Sarah Barr responded by e-mail, writing "with a looming $8 million deficit, there is little room to talk about any additional funding at this point. Everything is being reviewed."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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