By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Proponents of the embattled Dade County Public Libraries have high hopes for their upcoming March 22 dinner for community leaders, when they will encourage the powers that determine the library’s fate to discuss ways to save it.
“There are a good half-dozen ways to solve this problem that don’t include closing the library,” said Donna Street, longtime champion of the library and current president of the institution’s nonprofit Friends group, which is hosting the March summit.
Linda Wilson, a Friends past-president and member of the library’s board of directors, added that library advocates are sincere in soliciting input from the elected leaders. “We don’t have all the ideas in the world, so I’m just hoping some of them have some ideas about making our funding more dependable,” she said.
Ms. Street and Ms. Wilson said the Friends had issued “save-the-date” messages for the affair to members of the Dade County Commission, Trenton City Commission and Dade County Board of Education when the dinner was originally planned, and would hand-deliver formal invitations this week.
The dinner will not be official business, said Ms. Street. The press will not be invited to attend and neither will the library’s regional leadership – Dade’s public library is a branch of the Cherokee Regional Library System, which includes three libraries in Walker County.
Rather, the idea is to bring together representatives of the three taxing authorities responsible for funding the library at the local level, to see if they can’t come together to keep the threatened institution alive.
“They’ve got to tell us what they’re willing to do,” said Ms. Street. “Are they going to be willing to talk to each other?”
Currently, said Ms. Street, she and other library advocates go to the three separate governing bodies several times each year to request inclusion in their budgets, time they would rather spend administering library projects such as genealogy classes – Ms. Street, a seasoned researcher and incurable history buff, is Dade’s unofficial local historian – or computer training or master gardening classes.
And the multiple begging sessions haven’t been noticeably effective lately in procuring funds for the library anyway. The Trenton City Commission cut the library out of its 2011 budget altogether, relenting only after public outcry, and then only provisionally; and the Dade Board of Education pulled all funding for this fiscal year and did not back down even in the face of three packed public hearings last summer.
The Sentinel asked for an update on the library’s fiscal condition, which Ms. Street provided, as follows:
There has been little change on the county front. The Dade County Commission has been the library’s most reliable source of funding, furnishing the lion’s share of local support at about the $68,000 per annum level.
But Commission Chairman Ted Rumley, while he has promised not to let the library die, has maintained repeatedly that the county is already paying all it can, and he has expressed reluctance to act on a nonbinding 2012 straw poll question showing overwhelming – 71 percent – support for a proposal to devote a portion of Dade’s millage rate toward supporting the library.
As for Trenton, Ms. Street expressed gratitude for the recent show of support by Mayor Anthony Emanuel and the city commissioners. The city approved $24,000 for the library this year, down from its traditional $30,000-plus contribution, but as Ms. Street pointed out: “Last year, they gave us $5,000.”
She said the mayor had done the best he could for the library as he and the commission wrestled the city from its $100,000 yearly deficit when he took office down to its current $20,000 hole. “He’s come a long way in a short period of time,” she said.
And as for the school board, Ms. Street referred the Sentinel to Ms. Wilson, who had presented the B of E with the library’s plea to be reinstated at its monthly meeting in February.
Asked how the presentation was received, Ms. Wilson could only shrug and hope. “We didn’t expect to get an answer that night,” she said. “We were presenting a budget request and you never get an answer right off.”
She said she had asked for only $18,000-odd as opposed to the B of E’s traditional $38,000 contribution. “I knew we wouldn’t get the full amount,” she said. “I felt like by asking for half, it showed some movement on our part, and now we’d like to see some movement on their part.”
Ms. Wilson she had received a solitary question at the board meeting, one from newly elected at-large board member David Powell about the library’s summer fundraising drive, which enabled the library to stay open for its abbreviated 30-hour-a-week schedule after the school system zeroed out support.
She said she had felt encouraged by Powell’s question though she wasn’t sure she understood it entirely. “Just the very fact that he asked a question was a positive thing, because usually they just sit there like stone, but really I got no impression whatsoever,” said Ms. Wilson.
She also pointed to recent changes to the school board’s makeup. Powell, who was the only dissenting voice when the board last summer followed School Superintendent Shawn Tobin’s recommendation to kill funding for the library, was elected last year to the seat he’d been filling previously as an appointee.
And news came only last week that Gary “Mut” Massengale, the board’s District 1 member, was resigning and would be replaced by appointment.
The board of education’s proposed 2013 budget shows revenues of $22 million-plus, reduced from previous years’ numbers largely because of reductions in state funding. Thus the local board has cut expenditures wherever possible, as the library’s experience has showed.
Last year, Tobin made the proposal to cut off the library on the advice of financial consultant Doug Eza, and with the support of the school system’s law firm, Harben, Hartley and Hawkins.
The Georgia open-government website shows the Dade school board paid Eza $7,877 in fiscal 2012, which ended on June 30, and Harben Hartley $21,795.19 for the same period.
Tobin recently made local headlines by dedicating $400,000 in ESPLOST (education special purpose local option sales tax) funds for a new state-of-the-art security system, including video cameras that can read the license plate numbers of cars in the parking lot.
Ms. Street said there was no reason the school board could not use ESPLOST money to buy books for the public library. Providing the library with copies of schools’ required-reading books would benefit both the school and the library, she said.
And she said that in-kind contributions like this could be used in the state’s “maintenance of effort” formula.
This formula represents Georgia’s requirement that local governments pony up for their libraries as a condition for its own support, and the B of E’s defection has been foreseen to be devastating to Dade’s maintenance of effort numbers.
At the regional level, Lecia Eubanks, director of the four-library Cherokee system that includes Dade, said she was working with Walker County to investigate whether local governments could finance the library through a line-item tax initiative or a millage rate dedication on their own discretion.
In Dade, library proponents had tried to get such a measure on the November ballot as a referendum question, but time did not allow.
Ms. Street said as the Friends anticipate the March 22 effort they are encouraged by public support. “Nobody’s opposed to the library,” she said,
In any case, she said she and the other current so-called “library ladies” are determined to keep up the efforts started by the library’s founders, the library ladies of another age who founded Dade’s library and whose portraits adorn its walls.
“Those of us who have been entrusted with the library in this generation are trying to live up to that legacy,” she said.