By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Attendance at the Friends of the Dade County Library’s March 22 dinner and brainstorming session was about 25, including a healthy showing of leaders from the Dade County and Trenton City commissions.
But the headliner at the do was the segment of the community that did not attend. The Dade County Board of Education gave the “library ladies” a 100 percent snub, not one staffer or board member showing up at their party just as not one dime of the B of E’s multimillion-dollar budget has showed up in the library’s this year.
“I was not surprised,” said the Friends’ Linda Wilson. “We got the message that the superintendent was out of town, and it didn’t surprise us the board members didn’t come, either.”
The announced purpose of the Friday night affair was to bring together those responsible for funding the library to come up with ways to save it. Traditionally, the city, county and school system have shared the burden of financing the library locally. But last summer the school board opted abruptly out of the library-funding equation, announcing it would reduce its $37,700 annual contribution to zilch for this year.
The library has requested to be reinstated at least for half that amount for the upcoming fiscal year but has not yet received an answer – unless the empty chairs at Friday’s festivities count as a reply.
Nevertheless, Ms. Wilson said she had been pleased with the strong representation from the county and city at the Friday night dinner. Dade County Commission Executive Chairman Ted Rumley not only attended but during the brainstorming session suggested additional ways the county – already the library’s chief local supporter at $64,800 per annum – could bolster the beleaguered institution.
Also showing up from the county were District 1 Commissioner Mitchell Smith, District 4’s Allan Bradford and County Clerk Don Townsend. The event was emceed by Rebecca Page of Dade First/Family Connection
From the city, Trenton Mayor Anthony Emanuel attended with his wife, Patty Nethery, who has recently begun a term serving on the library board of directors. Parks and Recreation Commissioner Terry Powell and City Clerk Lucretia Houts were also in attendance.
Trenton has historically contributed to the library at about the $30,000 level annually, though this has fluctuated for the past couple of years as the city, like the other two taxing authorities, has taken painful revenue hits.
John Deffenbaugh, the Dade resident elected last year to the Georgia House of Representatives, attended the dinner with his wife, Linda.
The Dade library receives funding from Georgia through its regional system, the Cherokee Regional Library, and Georgia pays the salaries of the system’s master’s-level librarians.
But the state bases its degree of funding for the system on the “maintenance of effort,” or level of support by the local agencies, and at the Friday dinner library proponents stressed – as indeed they have since the school board’s 2012 announcement – that the B of E’s abandonment threatens state funding for the entire system.
Speakers at the function included Donna Street, chairperson of the Friends Group and former library board member, who spoke on the library’s importance to the community; Misty Reyes, business manager at the regional library, who gave a financial rundown of the situation; and Ms. Wilson, who spoke on what the Dade library gets out of its membership in the regional system – a point that has sometimes seemed to require some explaining to the local agencies.
Ms. Reyes said that to stay open for its present, and already reduced, schedule of 30 hours a week, the library needs $120,000 in local funding. “That’s still stretching our staff,” she said.
Since state-mandated increases last summer in the employer portion of health insurance for employees working 20 hours or more – $8,900 a pop – forced downsizing at libraries systemwide and in fact statewide, no one at Dade’s library is full-time, not even manager Marshana Sharp, said Ms. Reyes.
Besides Ms. Sharp, who is paid for 36 hours weekly – speakers stressed that she actually works far more – the Dade staff includes part-timers who put in 20, 13 and 10 hours, respectively, she said. Additional Department of Labor temporary employees have helped out, but the federal grant that pays their wages expires next month. Because of security rules, two staffers must be present at all times the library open.
Ms. Reyes displayed charts showing that the library would not be able to stay open for the 30 hours for its next fiscal year without the Board of Education funding.
“It’s been a struggle,” said Ms. Street, speaking in her turn. She said the library has only been able to maintain the 30 hours this year because it was able to make up part of the BOE shortfall through fundraising.
Meanwhile, the library is used more than ever, said Ms. Street, with thousands of books and movies checked out, the library’s computer and Internet facilities in more or less constant use, and its newly expanded interior providing meeting and even office space for many community groups and functions.
Ms. Wilson spoke about the role of the regional library system. Dade pays Cherokee a $17,000 participation fee, which helps pay for the cataloguing, bookkeeping, technical support, computers, books and administrative costs shared among the system’s branches. “We’re getting a lot back,” she said.
And she addressed what has been a recurring theme in the “Independent State of Dade”: “What if we went off on our own?”
The answer, she said, is not only would the system lose those regional services outlined above, state funding and eligibility for state and federal grants, but: “We’d have to start with most of our collection gone.”
After the speeches, and a dinner catered by Thatcher’s Barbecue, consisting of pulled pork piled high on a baked potato with cheese and sour cream – a creation that, parenthetically, depending upon individual cranial capacity, may well have violated the rule of life warning diners not to eat anything bigger than their heads – attendees split into individual groups to brainstorm.
Chairman Rumley suggested that the county could contribute by paying the library’s utilities and by joint purchasing of needed supplies. He also suggested looking into the possibility of the county taking over health insurance for library workers.
Getting library personnel out of the State Regents’ system altogether was another suggestion, whether or not feasible under state rules not being a subject for Friday night’s participants.
In that vein, Commissioner Mitchell Smith suggested charging $5 for library cards, a no-no under current rules but, as Smith pointed out: “Things can change.”
Another change suggested more than once at the meeting was in the rules for SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) funds. As it stands, they may be used only for capital expenditures as opposed to salaries and operating expenses – but operating expenses and especially salaries are where public institutions are hurting the worst these days.
And a popular suggestion – participants voted on the ideas by distributing their allotment of colored dots to their faves – was that the staff be stretched by housing a regional office employee at the Dade library. The central employees could take turns working from Dade, said attendees, and this would help with the two-employees-present rule without costing the branch additional salaries.
Another suggestion for staffing was to allow the school system to contribute in-kind by furnishing paraprofessionals to help run the library.
Holding a referendum to get some portion of property taxes dedicated to the library’s upkeep – an idea which garnered 71 percent as a nonbinding ballot question last year – was another suggestion, and so was adding $1 to residents’ water bill.
Funding was clearly the issue of the night, but participants were also asked on input on how the library can better serve the community.
Some suggestions in that regard were for the facility to stay open longer so that it could host more county meetings, and to add volunteers to help patrons navigate bureaucracies for necessary functions such as obtaining licenses or birth certificates.