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Westmoreland says county’s cost for library not yet known

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

A recent statement that Cashiers area residents will be footing the majority of the bill to build a new library in Jackson County and that construction of a less expensive, joint library with Southwestern Community College is still an option is misleading, county leaders say.

Last Wednesday’s edition (Dec. 7) of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle reported that a new library for Jackson County has been estimated to cost $6.5 million, a cost that the county would pay for through property taxes. The article largely was based on statements made by former Fontana Regional Library member and sitting Jackson County library board member Don Williamson, who is a Cashiers resident and has long-supported a joint facility.

“I’m still firmly of the opinion that the best thing that could happen to Sylva would be a joint combined library,” Williamson said last month.

However, the $6.5 million cost estimate and assumption of property tax based payments are not entirely correct, said County Manager Ken Westmoreland.

“We don’t know how much it’s going to cost, we don’t know how we’re going to pay for it,” Westmoreland said.

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The $6.5 million cost estimate included $1.5 million for land, a cost that has been reduced to $210,000 with the purchase of the Grindstaff Cove property in Jackson Plaza. The county and the town of Sylva are sharing the cost, with the county fronting the purchase price and the town paying back its share in $21,000 installments over a five-year period.

Additional county expenses so far have been $6,000 paid to architect Odell Thompson to evaluate building sites and $40,000 earmarked for a feasibility study in which a consultant will help the community determine what are the best uses for a new library — for example, meeting space, computer rooms, or a larger book collection.

The new building may be as large as 30,000 square feet, but county expenditures should not reach $6.5 million, Westmoreland said.

“At most we’re talking $4 million,” he said.

Regardless of the library’s final cost, the entirety of it will not come from property taxes — a particular sticking point for the Cashiers community. Two townships — Cashiers Mountain and Hamburg (located between Cashiers and Glenville) — account for 59 percent of the county’s nearly $3.6 billion in property tax value, according to county finance officer Darlene Fox. The next highest is Sylva, which accounts for 9.6 percent of the property value in Jackson County.

Paying for the library will indeed require county funds, most likely in the form of a loan distributed over a 12- to 15-year period, rather than a lump sum from the general fund. That means no single group of property owners will foot the bill.

But saying that the county will fund all of the cost doesn’t take into account any grants that might be received or any funds the Friends of the Library organization would raise. The more monies the Friends raise, the less that will come from the county. So far, no target has been set.

“We’ve never told the greater Sylva community how much we expect them to raise,” Westmoreland said.

The local library fund-raising committee — a partner to the library design committee — has been charged with coming up with a figure members think is a realistic goal by early 2006, when the county begins its capitol projects planning. Comparatively speaking, the new Macon County library is estimated to cost $5.5 million with their Friends group set to raise $1.5 million. Already the organization has surpassed the $650,000 mark.

In Cashiers — where there are approximately 200 full-time residents to Sylva’s 2,500, but 300 Friends of the Library members to Sylva’s 140 — the Friends group has pledged to raise $1.5 million to help fund the $3.7 million expansion of the Albert-Carlton library.

Futhermore, cost is one of the few things that hasn’t shown itself as a major consideration in constructing a new library, at least in terms of public opinion. The cost savings between constructing a joint facility on the SCC campus for about $2 million versus an independent facility for about $4 million has always been on the table. If the public were asked what they would rather pay — all things being equal — the obvious choice would be the $2 million facility. But what residents have said they want is a library in downtown Sylva.

“It seemed apparent that the library using public and the Town of Sylva were not at all interested in us going in with SCC,” Westmoreland said. “There’s never been any discussion as to reversing ourselves.”

It is a fact that constructing a joint facility with SCC is not entirely off the table. In a resolution the SCC Board of Trustees passed Jan. 27, 2004, it states: “... that Southwestern Community College, in compliance with State Bond requirements, is obligated to move forward with the implementation of its master plan. If it is determined after further study and review by the Commissioners that construction of a downtown library is not feasible and that a joint-use library might best meet county needs, the College would give consideration to such a proposal, assuming sufficient time remains for adequate planning and construction.”

SCC has not yet begun construction on its own library in part due to delayed land negotiations regarding a land swap between SCC and the U.S. Forest Service. The county conveyed the property to the Forest Service in 1961. That agreement included a clause that states if the land is used for any purpose other than that of the Forest Service, it reverts to county control. County commissioners will have to amend that clause to allow for the SCC/Forest Service swap.

Meanwhile SCC is moving ahead with its own plans.

“From our point of view it doesn’t make any difference what the town our county does,” said SCC president Cecil Groves. “If they choose to build their own, it doesn’t impact us one way or the other.”

And as for any dispute regarding who pays how much, Groves said that it shouldn’t be an issue of community against community — everyone lives in the same county.

“It’s a Jackson County library, it’s not a Sylva library,” he said.

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