Stockbridge council discusses expanding library hours

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

The Stockbridge City Council heard a lengthy discussion of the county’s library situation at its July 11 regular meeting, including pleas for the city to help expand the Cochran Library’s operating hours, but no action was taken.

Councilman Elton Alexander spearheaded a proposal to spend $10,800 that would allow the Cochran Library to open four hours every Saturday from August through December. The county’s five libraries are currently open Monday through Thursday for eight hours a day, with the headquarters library in McDonough also open four hours on Sunday afternoon.

Fellow council members LaKeisha Gantt and John Blount urged residents to contact county officials and let them know they wanted the library hours expanded. Blount in particular questioned why the city should fund the library when it was a county operation.

Mayor Pro Tem Anthony Ford pointed out that the issue is not in the city’s budget and was up only for discussion. He added that city officials should also talk to the county about the libraries, as it is not typically the city’s responsibility but the council could look at the possibilities.

Alexander stressed how the libraries support the county’s educational system and “do a tremendous amount of work.” He said that due to budget cuts in the county the funding is “nowhere near pre-recession levels.”

He has talked to a number of residents in lower-income areas in the city who do not have access to the Internet and other educational resources. Some of the elementary schools in Stockbridge are among the lower-performing schools in the county, he added.

“I want to do whatever we can to enable them,” said Alexander. “Hopefully this will plant a seed. Our citizens should not have to go to Clayton County or Griffin to go to the library. We should assist students to do everything they possibly can.”

With the funding for Saturday operating hours a first step, the councilman noted that additional money could perhaps be found in the future.

“We cannot turn a blind eye when we see our educational system taking a slight step backward,” he said. “We want to help them achieve at the highest level possible.”

County library director Carolyn Fuller told the council that the current system budget of $1.8 million per year is about $1.1 million short of what would be needed to operate all five branches seven days a week. The libraries were open 50 hours a week until 2010 when the majority of the budget cuts first took place, taking them to the current 32 hours a week. “That’s not what it should be,” she said.

Sunday afternoons at the McDonough branch are very busy, according to Fuller, with as many as 500 people visiting during a typical four-hour stretch. She noted that if the Cochran Library were open on Saturday afternoons the activity would likely be similar. About 14,000 people with library cards live in the Stockbridge city limits, she said.

With approved funding from the City Council, the Saturday hours at the Cochran Library could have begun the first weekend of August to coincide with the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Fuller said. That would mean 18 Saturdays in 2016 fully staffed to be covered by the $10,800 proposed to the council.

“Many think that these are state libraries but they are not,” said Fuller. She stated that any state money the system receives is from grants, and all of her staff members are paid through county funds.

With the libraries open 32 hours over four days a week, Fuller’s full-time staff members are effectively given 52 furlough days a year. She said she has lost a number of good staff members to other library systems where they can work 40 hours a week.

Kathy Gilbert, a former Stockbridge City Council member and current appointee to the county’s library board, called the funding situation “critical.” She said lack of financial participation by the county puts the library system in danger of losing state funding.

“That would be disastrous,” she said. “We need to let the county know in no uncertain terms how important this is.”

Ford asked Fuller and Gilbert to keep the city informed so that discussions can continue at a later time.