Bigger building, higher costs, no moneyWritten by Becky Johnson
Jackson County commissioners are faced with a dilemma over the new Sylva library slated to open in May: either pony up more money for staff or the library will be forced to cut hours.
The new library is four times bigger than the current one, and as a result needs more staff. It needs another $170,000 to remain open the same 45 hours that it is now. That’s a 35 percent increase over the county’s current funding for the Sylva library of $500,000.
But Jackson County is facing budget shortfalls, not surpluses.
“We’ve been hit pretty hard,” Commissioner Doug Cody said. “We are taking the punches really well so far. We are trying to be creative.”
The new library will have three desks — a main check-out counter, a children’s desk and a reference desk — compared to just one at the current library. The new library also has a large computer lab.
The current Sylva library is so tiny that any of the workers behind the circulation desk can easily pop over to the computer area or the children’s section. They can be reshelving books one minute and fill in behind the counter the next.
But the new library is far more spread out. The computer lab has its own room for example. And the main adult book stacks are on a separate floor from the circulation desk.
As a result, the new library needs twice the staff: the equivalent of 15 positions compared to just seven now.
“If the funding is not increased the hours of operation will have to go down,” said Chuck Wooten, interim Jackson County manager. “I can imagine there would be a lot of pushback from the public to do that.”
More than half of county residents have library cards. The public anted up generously for the new library, a sign of its popular support, Wooten said. Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million in grants and local contributions to furnish the library.
The Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet even commissioned a fanfare to honor the library, specially written by a composer to be performed at the grand opening in June.
“I think it would be very disappointing to the people in this community to not have convenient access to their wonderful new library,” said Karen Wallace, the head of the Fontana Regional Library system. “If we don’t get an operating budget increase, they won’t have the access that the facility warrants.”
Wallace pointed to the $8 million price tag for the new library and restoration of the adjacent historic courthouse.
“It is a big investment to build that facility. To not to be able to use it to its potential would be really disappointing to people,” Wallace said.
Cody and Wooten met with Jackson librarians last week to go over the figures. Cody said commissioners will likely hold a work session on the issue to figure out what to do — one of many hard decisions as part of developing a budget for the coming fiscal year.
“I’m sure there will be some nervousness over the situation, but we just have to drop back and punt and see where we stand on this,” Cody said.
Ideally, the county could increase library hours from 45 a week to 60 a week, Wallace said. The North Carolina Public Library Director’s Association recommends that the main library in a county should be open a minimum of 60 hours.
But doing so would take another $125,000.
Wooten agrees that would be wonderful, but whether it is doable is another story.
“We are really opening our library at the worst possible time,” Wooten said.
Cody said he would like to see library hours increased as well, but probably not until the economy improves.
“I don’t see us initially getting to 60 hours. And conversely I don’t want to see them be open any less either,” Cody said. “If you only operate 30 hours, that is not giving people much opportunity to use the facility.”
Commissioner Mark Jones said the county will obviously have to give the library more money, but isn’t sure whether it will be the full $170,000. Jones wonders if there is any middle ground.
“Can we shave off a little time here and a little time there?” Jones asked. “These are tough times and we have to make tough choices.”
But Mary Otto Selzer, a volunteer with Friends of the Library, said the public wants longer hours, not shorter ones, pointing to the input gathered during focus groups held in conjunction with planning for the new library.
“One of the things we heard loud and clear from people was they would like to see the library expand its hours,” Selzer said. “We need to listen very carefully to our community to address the community’s needs. We hope the commissioners will find a way to at least maintain the 45 hours a week we are currently open.”
Selzer pointed to the current lack of evening hours. The library is never open past 6 p.m. It is only open six hours on Saturday and not at all on Sunday.
“For folks who work and working parents there is not a lot of opportunities to use the library,” Selzer said.
Library use across the country has increased during the recession. Those forced to cancel Internet service at home have turned to public computers at the library. More people are checking out movies instead of going to the video store, reading newspapers and magazines at the library instead of home subscriptions and borrowing books instead of buying them.
The library is also a place used by job seekers and those going back to school, he said.
Indeed, Wallace said the computer terminals are popular with those looking for work, since many jobs require people to fill out online applications. Wallace also said they’ve seen an increase in people who have turned to distance learning for new degrees, which require online exams.
Jones suggested enlisting volunteers. That plan has shown promise for the Green Energy Park, which attracted 45 prospective volunteers to an organizing meeting last week following news that the county would cut its funding. The Green Energy Park houses a collection of artist studios fueled by methane seeping out of decomposing trash at the old county landfill.
“Ask not what your county can do for you, but what you can do for your county,” Jones said.
Coming from behind
While another $170,000 annually is a substantial increase, Jackson librarians point out that the library is severely underfunded today. Part of the increase is merely catching up to where they should be already, according to Wallace.
When compared to surrounding counties, Jackson County libraries are indeed underfunded. Library funding amounts to $15 for each county resident. Per capita, that’s 36 percent below Haywood County and almost 50 percent below Macon County. Jackson’s library funding is 25 percent below the state average for all 100 counties.
Since the Sylva library is so small and antiquated, however, it isn’t used as much as libraries in other communities. Macon County sees nearly twice the library use of Jackson, for example.
Until now, that’s allowed the Sylva library to get by on fewer dollars.
Dottie Brunette, the head librarian in Jackson County, said she would have been hard-pressed to squeeze more staff into the existing library. There simply wasn’t enough elbow room for more people behind the small desk.
Jackson’s librarians are bracing for an explosion in library use when the new one opens, however.
Since a new library opened in Franklin in 2007, library use has shot up 50 percent. When Transylvania and Polk counties opened new libraries recently, they saw even bigger increases. The upsurge wasn’t a mere blip following the opening of a new library, but went up and stayed up permanently.
The stage is set in Sylva for an even more dramatic increase in library use than what was seen in other communities where new libraries opened. The current library is so bad, a smaller segment of the public uses it.
“The library has not been able to meet their needs. If you come to the library and can’t get what you need, after a while you just stop trying,” Wallace said.
Only 50 percent of Jackson residents hold library cards. In Macon County, that number was already 75 percent prior to the new library opening. Additional library use could only climb so high, and indeed most of the increased use in Macon came from existing cardholders simply visiting more often. But in Jackson County, the increase will not only come from more trips among existing users but from brand new users.
Wallace also pointed out that new library construction has been prominent in the public eye.
“I anticipate the numbers may be even higher in Jackson,” Wallace said. “I say that because the building of this library has had a very successful marketing campaign. And this library has been a long time coming.”
Jackson’s libraries are at the bottom of the barrel in yet another category. The volume of books and materials per capita are less than in Haywood, Macon or Swain. Again, there simply wasn’t room for stuff.
“There’s books lying across the tops of shelves because we have no room,” said Brunette.
Out of the blue?
In addition to the extra staffing, the county is on the hook for bigger heating and cooling bills, higher liability insurance and more janitors. County Manager Chuck Wooten estimates the cost of running the building will go up by $70,000 to $90,000, from $50,000 now.
Wooten, who came on board as interim county manager at the same time the new commissioners took office, said he does not know if these calculations were done previously.
“I could not find where there was an estimate of what it would be with the new building,” Wooten said.
An increase in library funding has blindsided three newly elected commissioners as they grapple with how to cut the county’s budget.
“Doesn’t seem amazing to you that this just came up? Why couldn’t this have been figured out when we thought about building the building?” asked Commission Chairman Jack Debnam. “If I got ready to build a building, I believe I would look at how much more it would take to staff and maintain it.”
Three conservative newcomers to the county board ousted their more liberal opponents in the November election, partly on the resounding Republican platform of reducing government spending.
But now this has landed in their laps, they said.
“This should have been anticipated two or three years ago when they started this project,” Cody said. “I am not trying to throw blame on anyone, but when you have a two-story building you effectively have to double your staff to keep people from carrying the place away.”
According to Tom Massie, a former commissioner who lost re-election last fall, the old board was well aware of costs the new library would require.
“We’re not stupid,” Massie said. “We knew it would cost more and we would have to rearrange funds. You do that in every budget year.”
Massie said deciding how to spend limited county money goes with the territory.
“We had our priorities and they have their priorities, and those are the tough decisions they will have to make,” Massie said.
Massie said the new board is learning that the job isn’t as easy as it looks.
“They had all the answers in the campaign,” Massie said.
Massie said the rubber will meet the road over the next few months as the new board develops a budget for the coming fiscal year.
“Come July 1, they are going to own the new budget,” Massie said.
Commissioner Mark Jones, who served on the old board with Massie and is still on there now, also said the increased costs aren’t exactly a surprise.
“We were aware that the new facility, with the size and the fact that it has multiple levels, would take additional staff,” Jones said.
Jones said when the last board embarked on the new library in 2007, they didn’t realize how much the recession would hurt county coffers.
When asked if the new library was a bad idea, neither Debnam nor Cody would go that far.
“I’m not going to go there,” Debnam said, when asked if the library shouldn’t have been built. But said “they should have considered it.”
“Regardless of how anyone feels about it, the library is there,” Cody said. “I have been through it and it is a beautiful facility. I am not going to tell you or anyone else I would have done anything any different. It is great.”