Libraries brace for hit: Libraries play offense over state budget cuts
For years, state funding for libraries has been on the decline. But librarians in Western North Carolina are not taking this next round lying down.
In response to a recommendation by Gov. Pat McCroy to cut the state library budget by nearly 5 percent, librarians in the Fontana Regional system put out petitions in the libraries in Macon, Swain and Jackson counties.
It asks visitors to pledge their support for funding libraries with tax dollars. The system’s website also carries alarming facts and figures about the impending cuts to rally support.
“It’s a long way to Raleigh,” said Karen Wallace, Macon County librarian and director of the Fontana system. “But we know people care passionately about their public libraries and we wanted to give them a voice.”
Within two days of putting out the petition, the system had collected more than 400 signatures, which they scanned and sent to state representatives. In the following weeks, more sheets of signatures were amassed, and Wallace is readying that next batch to be sent off soon. She is hoping the effort can help avert what she says will more painful cuts to a crucial public service.
In 1998, the state contributed about $17 million to local public libraries, Wallace said. This year, $13.1 million was allocated.
As state lawmakers were beginning the budget process in March, Wallace and other library directors were lobbying for a return to the funding levels of bygone years. But after McCroy’s budget recommendations were made, they found themselves fighting a different fight.
“Instead, we’re now battling to keep the $13.1 million,” Wallace said.
For Fontana Regional Library, which oversees six libraries in three counties, the 4.8 percent recommended cut would take a $20,000 hit out of the $350,000 it gets from the state, Wallace said. The majority of each library’s funding comes directly from counties, but the state’s allocation is still critical to operations.
As the state funding stream trails off, however, counties are often left with the decision whether to pick up the tab or make cuts to an ever popular service. The Fontana system saw 460,000 visitors last year, which is about 100,000 more visitors than there were in 2002.
“It’s a question of whether they can chip in extra,” Wallace said of the town and county governments. “They may or may not be able to make up the difference.”
Residents should see the public investment in libraries — whether at the state or county level — as a steal considering the access it provides them to countless books, free programs, music, movies, computers and more.
“We’re a really good bang for the buck,” Wallace said. “What you pay and what you get access to is really, pretty incredible.”
One of the flagship libraries in the Fontana system is the Jackson County Public Library in Sylva. After moving from a much smaller building two years ago to its current location in a behemoth wing built on the back of the historic courthouse, Jackson County commissioners have had to commit a pretty penny to provide a full range of services — from two floors outfitted with computers and books to story time to Earth Day programs to live concerts.
On a Monday afternoon, Peyton Young, a student at Western Carolina University, brought the twin 3-year olds she was babysitting to the library. Thomas and Cameron Sylvester happily made “choo choo” sounds as they maneuvered the wooden cars along the track of a train table in the children’s area.
However, Young claimed they like reading even more than the train set, and there’s no better place for that than the library.
“Being able to read is an important thing, especially at their age,” Young said. “It expands their imagination so much. Every time we get to read, they get excited.”
For this year, Jackson Head Librarian Dottie Brunette requested just more than $900,000 from commissioners to operate the libraries in Sylva and Cashiers. For next year, Brunette is asking for just more than $1 million — with much of the increase slated for employees who haven’t seen a salary increase in five years.
Brunette is worried that if the state funding for the Fontana system is chipped away, county commissioners will have to contribute more and more, or decide they can’t keep up. She said the Fontana system handles a lot of the administrative services that would be very costly if brought down to the local level.
“Cuts have trickle down effect,” Brunette said. “One way or another, it will come down to individual libraries.”
The library doesn’t usually allow petitions to be circulated because they are often partisan and political. But an exception was made in this case — Brunette thought the petition supporting funding for the library was well suited to be placed in the library. She also hopes it will have an effect winning over members of the legislature, who must vote on the final state budget in coming weeks.
“That’s why we’re doing this now, so it has some impact,” Brunette said. “Then maybe they can see that people out there care.”
Brunette maintains that cuts to library services actually work against the citizens of the county.
Cassie Stewart, a 19-year-old student from Sylva, said she would be at a loss if she couldn’t come to the library to use the Internet, which she uses for everything from surfing the web to checking her Facebook profile to studying. Stewart said she doesn’t have Internet access at her home and enjoys coming to the library anyway.
“It’s a good atmosphere,” Stewart said. “You can go on the Internet, get books and hang out.”
The cuts conundrum
In neighboring Haywood, library Director Sharon Woodrow is reviewing the Haywood library system budget and having difficulty finding where she could trim down. This year, the Haywood County library system had a budget of approximately $1.3 million, about $100,000 came from the state, Woodrow said.
Unlike Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, which belong to a regional library system, Haywood County operates as a single-county library network.
Apart from the governor’s recommended 4.8 percent cut to the state library, Woodrow said she has heard talk of eliminating all state library funding to counties with a tier three economic ranking, which Haywood has.
“Of course, I’m troubled by it,” Woodrow said. “Our budget has been cut for several years now.”
Woodrow said Haywood’s library budget was about $200,000 more five years or so ago. She said at those funding levels, the system was operating very successfully. To survive in the new norm, the county’s libraries have reduced staff, cut operation hours and even taken out of the book-buying budget.
The library in Waynesville is only open in the evenings twice a week and is not open at all on Sunday anymore.
And cutting from the materials budget is a surefire way to make the library system irrelevant in the changing times, Woodrow said.
“Purchasing more electronics and digital items can cost three times as much as a print item, but we have to make that transition to make sure we stay viable,” Woodrow said. “That’s what the public wants.”
Marcus Roberts, a 37-year-old library user in Waynesville, said cutting the state library budget is the exact opposite of what decision-makers should be considering right now. Roberts goes daily to the library to read, rent movies and use the Internet.
He recommended that the library consider expanding its hours so more people can stop in after work before it closes. He also would like to see some upgrades to services like the Internet. And if there’s a will, there’s a way, Roberts said.
“I think there’s a way they could find a budget to get it right,” Roberts said. “That’s the last thing they need to cut if they value education.”
Christian Gentry, a 15-year-old Tuscola High School student was of the same mindset. He meets up with friends at the Waynesville library regularly. He wondered why resources would be taken away from such a treasured gathering place.
“It’s definitely a bad idea,” Gentry said. “It’s a place where people in the community come together.”
However, Woodrow said the system can’t stomach many more funding decreases without making drastic changes, like closing one of its branches. Although it is a last resort, she said one of the system’s smaller branches in Fines Creek or Maggie Valley could be on the chopping block if the budgets keep shrinking.
“At this point, we’re as close to cutting out one or two of our branches as we’ll ever come.” Woodrow said. “That would be a huge loss to those communities. I really don’t want to do that.”
Woodrow, too, traveled to Raleigh for the library legislative day. Nevertheless, she wondered if the cries from librarians didn’t fall on deaf ears. She said for there to be any major reversal in fiscal policy regarding libraries, the call needs to come from constituents.
“My personal opinion is that the public needs to be involved because our services are for the public,” Woodrow said. “If they don’t speak up, I don’t feel that the representatives will listen.”
I believe that the public library is the heart of my community. It enriches my life and inspires my future. For these reasons, I support the funding for public libraries with my tax dollars.