Davidson and Cornelius branches are on the list of those that would close if county can’t come up with the extra money, Future of the Library Task Force says.
By CHRISTINA RITCHIE ROGERS
CHARLOTTE – Two million dollars is needed to save as many as six Charlotte Mecklenburg Library branches from closing this summer, including those in Cornelius and Davidson, the Future of the Library Task Force determined on Tuesday.
The citizen task force, formed in October 2010, is wrapping up a five-month effort to shape the future of Mecklenburg County’s library system in the face of severe county funding cuts. Members met Tuesday at Morrison Regional Library in Charlotte to continue discussion of how to allocate limited funding across the library system.
Task force members discussed ways of making up the $2 million gap. If that happens, the system would remain open at current levels. Without the money, the system would have to close a half-dozen small branches, including Davidson, Cornelius, Matthews, Hickory Grove, Plaza Midwood and Myers Park. Money saved would go toward operations at the regional libraries, including the North County Regional Library in Huntersville.
During the meeting, a subcommittee charged with examining funding alternatives presented recommendations for short- and long-term library system stability as it relates to county funding.
First, it recommended the county determine the library’s funding based on a per-capita allotment, giving the library between $27.89 and $28.66 per person, or between $1.8 million and $2.5 million total next year.
To determine the range per-capita funding, the subcommittee studied fiscal 2011 data for 13 public library systems identified as benchmarks for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, including those in Baltimore, Dallas, and Jacksonville, Fla. It then calculated the mean and median per-capita spending among the systems.
“The benefit of shifting to a per-capita basis would, at least, result in a proposed increase (in funding) as the community grows,” Task Force Chairman Jim Woodward said.
Subcommittee chairwoman Carol Hull said a per-capita funding method would provide more stability in the library system short-term, as “the library could avoid having to defend its base budget annually.”
Moving forward, the county would be able to use the per-capita funding allotment from the previous year as a starting point for the next year’s funding, and could add to it or subtract from it as appropriate.
“The thing I like about this is it provides a context for discussing the budget that the county commission didn’t have last time,” task force member Ed Williams said.
The task force voted unanimously to include the per-capita funding plan in its final recommendations to the Library Board of Trustees later this month.
While per-capita budgeting could help stabilize the system in the short-term, the subcommittee also looked at the long term. It recommended shifting away from the per-capita plan in a few years and creating a two-pronged county budget, placing the library and other “quality of life assets” into a funding pool separate from other required expenses.
Currently, the county works with a single budget consisting of four tiers, including “mandatory assets,” such as public schools, as well as other “quality of life” assets, like community parks and recreation departments and libraries.
With all items lumped into one budget, “discretionary spending gets squeezed by mandatory assets,” Hull said. Her committee’s two-pronged approach would offer a measure of protection for the library and other quality of life assets, she said.
But the two-pronged budget set up would not guarantee more money for the library. Instead, all of the assets in the quality of life pool annually would compete with each other for the funding available.
“What you’ve done is brilliant,” task force member Connie Wessner said to the subcommittee members. “It helps people identify what the trade-offs are,” she said. “It gives them a way to evaluate the process and it gives people a reason to get behind it.”
“Philosophically, I love it,” task force member Bill Millett said, but he questioned how the county commission would respond to the proposal.
After some back and forth, the task force voted to approve the recommendation, with Millet and two other members withholding.
If the county provides the roughly $2 million in funding under the per-capita recommendation, the library system would be able to remain open and operating at its current level, task force consultant Sean Hogue said. He presented a chart showing the approximate costs to keep the main, regional and branch libraries open and operating at their current levels.
If funding does not come through, the system would have to close a half-dozen small branches, including Davidson, Cornelius, Matthews, Hickory Grove, Plaza Midwood and Myers Park. Savings would go towards restoring some operations at the regional libraries, including the North County Regional Library in Huntersville.
Branches in several “at risk” neighborhoods would be protected, including the Scaleybark, Sugar Creek and West Boulevard
The task force continues to run “what if” scenarios, Hull said, tweaking operating hours and personnel numbers, and nothing will be decided until the county’s contribution is determined.
The group will present its final recommendations to the Library Board of Trustees and the county commissioners March 21 at the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St., Charlotte.
Feb. 28, 2011, “Panel eyes regional library system, but it’s not unanimous”
See all our previous coverage of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library funding crisis, CLICK HERE>
Future of the Library Task Force website, with agendas and documents.
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to identify Sean Hogue as a task force consultant, not a task force member.