Libraries get compromise funding increase from county commissioners

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

For now, your PINES library card is secure and, as soon as November, your Henry County libraries may be open more hours each week.

Members of the Henry County Board of Commissioners agreed Monday to a $500,000 budgetary increase for fiscal year 2016 to help the county’s five libraries increase their hours and eliminate weekly staff furloughs – and avoid a crippling loss of state funding.

All five acting commissioners met Monday with the County Library System Board to discuss its request to restore the library’s budget to funding levels from 2010, when libraries operated 58 hours a week instead of the current 32 hours a week (or 36 in McDonough).

All five commissioners voted for the compromise-level increase after listening to a presentation from Henry County Library System Director Carolyn Fuller that requested that the libraries’ current $1.75 million annual budget be increased to $2.9 million.

“What we need now to bring the libraries up to the level that the citizens of Henry County deserve is $2.9 million,” Fuller said.

Fuller said the goal for the full funding increase request was to restore all five libraries to 58 hours per week – including Friday and Saturday hours and four Sunday hours in McDonough – plus bring the number of library employees back to 80, as it had been in 2010, and restore employee benefits and raise pay to current standards.

But County Commission Chairman Tommy Smith proposed that the Board instead offer the Library Board $500,000 in additional funds, a little less than half the requested $1.15 million increase, to help the libraries eliminate staff furloughs and increase hours through nine more months of the current fiscal year.

After the meeting, Fuller said she is uncertain how many of the goals she set out can be met with less than half the requested funding increase. “A half million for the rest of the year, we’ll have to make it go a long way. I can’t off the top of my head say how many furlough days that’ll take away, but it’ll take away a lot of them.”

“We’ve got a lot of figuring to do,” Fuller said. “I assume we’ll figure out a schedule and present it at our next Library Board meeting the first week of October.” Changes in operating hours, then, may follow within a month of that meeting, she said, adding that it can take months to make such changes.

State Librarian Julie Walker, who was asked to attend the meeting, explained that through a state funding requirement, the county’s five libraries could lose more than $365,000 in annual state funding, which includes four state-paid staff positions, use of the state’s PINES and Galileo databases, interlibrary loans, summer reading materials, repair and renovations, tech replacement and other state support. The state’s removal of funding would be through a Georgia statute called the Maintenance of Effort requirement.

“A consequence of not meeting the Maintenance of Effort requirement is a loss of some or all of your state services,” she said.

For state funding, part of the issue is whether the library is being treated the same as every other county agency. If other county agencies have been restored to 2010 funding levels with no staff furloughs – and Fuller and others recently voiced opinions that it appears that they have – then the county must do the same for the library system or risk losing state funding for its libraries, Walker said.

She said the requirement was put into place “to ensure that libraries around the state are not targets of funding cuts that are not affecting other agencies within our cities and counties.”

With the $500,000 funding increase, the Henry County libraries now appear not to be in danger of losing the state funding, “if the funding continues,” Fuller said. In fiscal 2017, if the library system’s budget is cut below this year’s new $2.25 million funding level, it could be in danger again, she said.

Although the state provides critical services on which local libraries depend, every library looks to its county or municipality for primary funding, Walker said. “Carolyn and her staff have done a masterful job of identifying and applying for grants for other enhancements. But the operating funding to pay these hard-working people, pay the light bill and keep the library running is the county’s responsibility.”

The Henry County Library System still furloughs its staff 52 days per year – one full day per week – and is still open only 32-36 hours per week, which is below the state minimum requirement of 40 hours per week, Fuller said.

That sets Henry County apart, in a negative way, from all other Georgia library systems, Walker said. “In the past few years when the economic climate has been difficult, there have been a number of libraries around the state who had to utilize furloughs. Henry County has always had the most furlough days, and today you’re the only ones with staff members who still get furloughed.

“I’m surprised that Henry still has the level of staff that you do,” Walker said, “because there are 403 library systems around the state to which these talented, master’s degree-bearing librarians could go and earn 40 hours a week of pay.”

District 3 Commissioner Gary Barham said that he feels the joint meeting with the Board of Supervisors and Library Board helped overcome some misunderstandings. “I think there’s been some confusion on whose responsibility the library system was – was it the state’s or the city’s? It’s not the state’s, it’s not the city’s, it’s not the Board of Education’s, it’s the Henry County Board of Commissioner’s (responsibility).” The remark drew applause from many of the 30-plus in attendance.

With seven minutes left in the meeting, and nothing decided, and possibly weeks or months before another such meeting could be arranged, Chairman Smith suggested a proposal. “I’m willing to vote today for a budget amendment to add a half million. If we get out of here, once this group is gone, it’s over. It could be months before we can get back. So, I’m trying to be a negotiator and mediator. I know it’s not what you wanted.”

After discussion the proposal was made, seconded and unanimously passed by the five commissioners, drawing more applause.

When asked in the meeting what the $500,000 could mean to the libraries, Fuller responded, “We could certainly get rid of most of the furlough days, be open at least one more day of the week. That would go a long way toward getting the library system back to a healthy state. Eventually we’ll have to go beyond that.”