With July 1 closing threatened, town plans to raise money, recruit volunteers to save branch
Updated Wednesday, 3:02 p.m.
By DAVID BORAKS
“If the library (Board of Trustees) cannot keep this branch open in its current budget environment, the town and the community will engage in an effort to keep it open. We will assume responsibility to keep it open,” Mayor Woods said at the end of Tuesday’s Town Board meeting.
The mayor asked fellow board members to support a last-ditch effort to save the library, which is in danger of closing as early as July 1 because of Mecklenburg County budget cuts. Cornelius officials also are working to save the branch on Catawba Avenue, and similar efforts are under way in several other Mecklenburg County towns.
“The library (board) has naturally turned, at this point, to us and the other five towns to assess what contributions we can make,” Mayor Woods said. He responded publicly Tuesday with a five-point list of goals:
- The Davidson library should remain open on a full schedule, with no interruption or deterioration in service. “Remember this is a goal,” he said, “and what may be reality in the end, we may have to deal with something less.”
- If the library board can’t keep the Davidson branch open, the town and the community will assume responsibility to keep it open. “It would be our intent to keep the library as part of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system. And when the crisis is concluded at some time, it would return to county funding,” he said.
- Davidson would defer or waive the library’s final lease payment on the building, which was built in 1995 on the Village Green. Mayor Woods said the payment is “around $40,000.” After this year, the lease would drop to $1 per year. (Davidson College donated the land and built the building. The town bought it from the college. The county leases the building for an amount equal to the town’s loan payment. The town budget shows the town’s debt payment is $35,140.)
- The town and community would launch a fund-raising campaign to pay for library operations next fiscal year. If the budget crisis continues, more fund-raising could be needed next year.
- “We should continue to collaborate with the town of Cornelius,” the mayor said. The two towns and libraries have “complementary strengths, and a joint proposal from the two towns will be stronger than one from either of us.”
Mayor Woods compared the situation to 1995, when the library system also proposed closing the Davidson branch, then in a building at 212 S. Main St., next to Town Hall. Local officials and residents joined forces to solve the problem then, and we can do it again, he said.
“It’s the bottom of the ninth inning and we’ve got to make some decisions and have some discussions that are hopefully based on some plan to continue or develop some sustainability in the library system,” Mayor Woods said.LIBRARY DIRECTOR WELCOMES HELP
On Wednesday afternoon, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library director Charles Brown said he welcomes Davidson’s proposal to forgo a lease payment.
“That is something that we very much would appreciate, and also the opportunity to further utilize volunteers,” Mr. Brown said in an interview.
But he cautioned that it’s still too early to say how the situation will unfold. “This is all part of a moving target, or a mathematical equation,” he said. “The library board is still grappling with (the budget).” It may not be clear until “we have a final number how that’s going to look for our operations.”
Those answers may not come until the end of the month, right before closings could begin, he said.
Facing a big revenue shortfall in the coming fiscal year, the county has proposed cutting library funding by nearly half. The Library Board of Trustees in recent weeks has come up with a “Sustainability Plan” to ease the pain of those cuts and save most branches. But it has said it needs $8 million more than it’s getting.
As part of a budget cutting plan in April, the library already has sent layoff “pre-notification letters” to 214 of its 387 employees, including the branch manager and some staff at the Davidson and Cornelius branches. Those letters alerted employees they could lose their jobs as of July 1. On May 20, the library trustees also approved closing four branches in Charlotte.
Over the past week, the funding gap has been narrowing, though not completely. The county commission last week agreed to add another $3.5 million to the budget. And in an unprecedented move, the City of Charlotte – which traditionally has left library funding to the county – agreed to a one-time, $1.4 million payment in the coming year.
But there’s still a shortfall and that means a looming threat that community libraries such as those in Cornelius and Davidson could close.
In addition, the city council made its contribution contingent on participation by at least four of the county’s six municipalities. Besides Davidson, Mr. Brown thinks contributions or in-kind financial help could come also from Matthews and Mint Hill. Mr. Brown said Matthews also is considering waiving a lease payment, much like Davidson.
Pineville officials have told him they’re out.
That leaves Huntersville and Cornelius, who also are in conversations with Mr. Brown and other library officials.
COMMITTEE FORMED, COMMITMENTS MADE
Over the past six weeks, Davidson Mayor Woods and Town Manager Leamon Brice have been discussing the situation with their counterparts in Cornelius, with Mr. Brown and other library officials, and with members of the Mecklenburg County commission and Charlotte City Council.
Mayor Woods pulled together what he called an ad hoc committee in Davidson to study the issue. Besides the mayor and town manager, it includes former Mayor Randy Kincaid, retired Davidson College librarian Leland Park, and Commissioners Connie Wessner and Margo Williams.
Karen Bentley, the District 1 county commissioner, has also been working publicly and behind the scenes, the mayor said. She supported additional county funding in a commission vote last week, and told DavidsonNews.net Wednesday she has been advocating for the towns with the library Board of Trustees.
Both Davidson and Cornelius are hoping that their branches can stay open with a combination of paid and volunteer staff. Running the Davidson branch alone at full staff costs $489,000 a year, according to town and library officials. About half that is for personnel.
Davidson officials say they’ve lined up a potential volunteer coordinator who would establish and train an organization of high-quality volunteers. Cornelius officials also have said they can provide volunteers. Although the library does use volunteers right now, it has reacted coolly to suggestions that volunteers might be part of a solution to keep branches open.
“There has been a reluctance in general for the library board to look outside the box,” Commissioner Bentley said Wednesday. With the funding picture now a bit clearer, and a shortfall still likely, she and local officials say it’s time for the library to consider alternatives.
At this point, with the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, you could say the library board is now being called to the plate. The big question, Mayor Woods said Tuesday, is how library officials might react. “We need to know how they feel,” he said.
BENTLEY READY TO HELP
Commissioner Bentley praised the cooperation between Davidson and Cornelius and said she’s hopeful branch closings can be avoided.
But she said it has been frustrating so far that the library has not offered a backup plan. In a statement last week, library officials said only that “with anything less than $8 million, we will need to sharpen our pencils and come up with another plan.”
“At this point, it still remains somewhat fluid,” Ms. Bentley said. She said she’s pressing the library to provide a list of how it will respond if the full $8 million does not come through. She’d like to know which branches might be closed and which might stay open.
CAN LIBRARY LIVE WITH LESS?
The county commission is urging the library to continue looking at consolidating some of its operations with the county, including human resources and information technology. The library also will form a task force to develop a long-term plan for sustainability.
Ms. Bentley said she thinks the library can operate with a smaller budget. Including the city and county commitments, the library could have at least $23 million in the coming year. That’s down from a peak budget of $35 million last year, but close to the $21 million the library had back in 2001, she said.
In 2001, the library didn’t have the ImaginOn children’s library, which costs about $3.5 million a year. Still, Ms. Bentley said, “My point is we have an operating model at that funding level, to refer back to.”
The towns and library officials will continue their discussions in the coming week, and there’s still plenty of work to do. The county commission votes on the final Mecklenburg County budget on Tuesday, June 15. The Library Board of Trustees will vote on the Library’s final budget on June 24.
June 7, 2010, “Will Charlotte council vote help save libraries?”
See all our past coverage of the libraries under the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library tag, http://www.davidsonnews.net/tag/charlotte-mecklenburg-library