By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
On Tuesday, the Dade County Library will hold a ribbon cutting for its sparklingly renovated and expanded permanent building on the Trenton town square. Attractions will include music, comedy by Timothy Johns, and a final drawing for children participating in the library’s summer reading program. Festivities begin at 10 a.m., and refreshments will be served and door prizes awarded until the library closes at 7 p.m.
And there’s more good news: It isn’t official yet, but Linda Wilson, who serves on the library’s board of directors and is also president of its nonprofit Friends group, says odds look good that the library will be able to open for 30 hours a week, as do the other three libraries in the Cherokee Regional system, of which Dade is a branch.
After the Dade County Board of Education’s sudden and cataclysmic decision last month to cut 100 percent of its funding to the library, plans were announced to open the facility only 20 hours a week.
But Cherokee Regional Director Lecia Eubanks had estimated the branch could manage the 30 hours if it secured just half the approximate $38,000 it had expected from the school board, and a popular fundraising effort promptly sprang up to gather the requisite $19,000. Area businesses and individuals chipped in with a vengeance, raising thousands in days.
“I’m pretty sure we’re there or extremely close,” said Ms. Wilson on Monday. And indeed, by Tuesday morning, though the official count still stood at $18,022, library leadership said checks totaling another $6- or $700 were locked in the library, closed as furniture is moved in, and would be added shortly.
The total should also grow at the end of today, when the library will accept high bids for old furniture it had stored in a warehouse at 395 North Industrial Drive, across from Gill Manufacturing. The sale began Monday, and bidders have until 5 p.m. to make an offer on tables, chairs and other used library fixtures.
In one scant silver lining left by the tornados of April 27, 2011, insurance reimbursement paid for new furniture to replace that destroyed when the library’s first temporary location in the Ingle’s shopping center, into which it had moved when the renovation started in October 2010, lost part of its roof in the disaster.
And on Friday, while unpacking boxes that had been in storage since they were removed by the insurance company in the wake of last year’s storm, library volunteer and Dade history buff Donna Street discovered another nugget of happiness: “Microfilm – this is what we were so worried about,” she said, brandishing a box triumphantly. The microfilms appeared undamaged by the storm.
“This is truly a repository of Dade County history,” said Ms. Street, reading the labels. “The Dade County Gazette, 1879; the State of Dade News, 1891; the Dade County Sentinel, 1902. Then it quits being the Sentinel and it becomes the Dade County Times.”
A handwritten index to the records by early library volunteer Katherine Morrison still accurately catalogs the old newspapers, said Ms. Street.
As she worked, Ms. Street sported a vintage hat she had found in a box of materials dated 1907. Other boxes, long forgotten but now unearthed in the move, held fossils that library manager Marshana Sharp says she hopes to put on display once the library opens its doors.
But for all the glad tidings, the library’s future remains far from certain. As library board member Eddie Pittman told school board members as he pled with them at a public hearing in July not to withdraw funding, without secure support the library must shortly follow its grand opening with a “grand closing.”
At a special meeting of the Friends of the Dade County Public Library on Thursday, Pittman told the group that fundraising was all very well but his earlier warning still stood. “The money we’re raising, that is to get us from right now to June 30 of next year,” he said.
After that, he said, things do not look rosy. If public libraries are not sufficiently supported by the communities they serve, the state also withdraws its support under the concept of “maintenance of effort.”
Dade’s failure to support the library – or specifically, the Dade Board of Education’s failure to support the library; the other funding agencies, the county government and city of Trenton, are at least so far current – could spoil the maintenance of effort formula for the whole Cherokee Library system, imperiling the other branches’ state funding, said Pittman; and before that happened, Cherokee would shut Dade’s library down.
“The county commission needs to understand that if nothing happens by next June, we’re done,” said Pittman.
“No, we’re not done,” said Dade County Executive and Commission Chairman Ted Rumley, interviewed Friday.
As he has before, the county boss vowed the library would stay open even if it meant pulling out of the Cherokee Regional system. “We’ll take it over and do what we have to do to preserve the library,” he said. “It may not be a Taj Mahal but we will have a Dade County library.”
Rumley denied any hostility toward Cherokee Regional but described Ms. Eubanks’ requests for money for the library as “aggressive” and seemed not disinclined to consider divorcing Dade from the system. “We own the building and we own the land,” he said. “We just let them borrow it,” he said.
And Rumley said losing Cherokee Regional membership would not mean losing state support. “That slice of pie would come back,” he said. “We would have to reapply, go through the paperwork. We can have our own library. The state cannot defy us from having state funds for a library.”
But Linda Wilson, asked if Dade could go it alone, answered with an unequivocal, “We just can’t.”
It’s not just that the Pines interlibrary loan capacity comes with the regional system and that the computers and high-speed Internet T-1 line are paid for by the state, said Ms. Wilson; it’s that, except for volumes specifically donated to the Dade library, Dade’s whole book collection is owned by Cherokee Regional and would be divided among the remaining branches if Dade pulled out.
“Losing the T-1 and the Pines would cripple the library, but the books, that would be the death knell,” she said. “People expect to see books when they go into a library.”
With the Dade Board of Education having shrugged off its share of supporting the library, and the city of Trenton none too sure a bet – the city commission cut the library 100 percent from its 2011 budget, only relenting in the face of public outrage, an element to which the school board proved monolithically impervious – the Dade County Commission is the institution’s last best hope.
Library supporters hope that Dade’s overwhelming 71 percent yes vote to July 31’s nonbinding straw poll question, which asked if some percentage of the county millage rate should be devoted to maintaining the library, will convince the commission that Dade loves its library. “That ought to tell them something,” said Ms. Wilson.
But Chairman Rumley said that at its current millage rate the county was barely paying for roads and law enforcement, and any portion of a millage point dedicated to the library would have to come from a new millage point. He didn’t think citizens who voted yes to the straw poll question understood that.
“If you put it on there, actually the truth, that OK, we’re going to fund the library, but that’s going to mean a property tax increase for you, if it was worded that way, there’s no way the people would have voted for a property tax increase to fund the library,” he said. “I live here in Dade County and I know.”
Rumley said with the possible exception of zoning, nothing makes Dade voters madder than a rate increase of any kind. “You go up a nickel on people’s water bill and they line up to crucify you,” he said.
He said the commission would need a mandate from the voters before it considered raising the millage rate, through public hearings or possibly a referendum in a special election. “If the property owners feel like they want to raise it half a mill or a quarter mill or two mills, then they need to tell us,” he said.
The chairman was quoted last week as saying Dade would put the library question as a referendum issue on the November general election ballot. Now, he said, he had learned there was no time for that.
Rumley said he and the other commissioners were looking at alternative ways to take up the slack left by the Board of Education’s pullout, such as paying the library’s power and/or water bills. “For the next six months we’re going to be beating our brains out,” he said.