Small library branches could close until economy recovers

Without more funding, libraries will be in danger again

by Frank DeLoache

Unless four towns, Charlotte and the county decide to give the library system another $5 million bailout next year, a financial consultant to the libraries says the system will have difficulty keeping all 20 library branches open.

At the second meeting of a task force trying to figure out how to save the library system, consultant Sean Hogue asked, “Can we afford to keep 20 locations open?”

Task force member Andy Heath Jr., who calls the Davidson library his local branch, said the task force may have to consider reducing the library system to only regional branches for several years – and closing smaller branches – until the economy can revive.

None of the proposals is concrete yet, but the task force is preparing to survey Mecklenburg County residents to see why public libraries are important to them and just as importantly, what they’re willing to pay for.

Task force Chairman Jim Woodward said the task force has a two-fold challenge:

• First, it must advise the library system leaders and county commissioners how to get through the next year or two of continued budget cuts.

• At the same time, it also needs to plot a long-term strategy for guaranteeing the survival of the library.

Hogue, whose company is Vertere Capital Advisors, kept the task force firmly grounded in the library’s impending peril in the coming year. In the past three years, county budget cuts forced library trustees to cut the staff from 600 to 312, close four small branches and cut back hours at others.

The cuts would have been much worse, Hogue said, if the county, Charlotte and Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Davidson had not put together the $5 million supplement. The extra money saved 100 jobs and enabled the system to keep all 20 branches open.

But the state faces a huge budget shortfall, and county officials already have warned Woodward to expect more budget cuts next year, Woodward told fellow members. “Next year is going to be very tough,” he said.

Woodward hopes the task force’s work, with the support of county residents, can keep the library “from falling off the cliff.”

The task force should consider a new tax dedicated to the library system, Woodward said, providing an independent source of revenue. Right now, the county provides 90 percent of library system funding and has no choice but to make cuts dictated by county officials.

The citizen survey is crucial in convincing county leaders to protect libraries from more devastating cuts, Woodward added. But several task force members laughed at the idea of asking residents if they would support a new tax for anything, including the library system.

At the same time, task force members have marveled at the range of services offered by the library system – from literacy programs to assistance in job searches and public access to technology. Several members expressed frustration at the difficulty in explaining the value of those services to Mecklenburg residents.

Bill Millett, president of Scopeview Strategic Advantage, said the strength of a community’s public libraries “is a reflection on the community.” With Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s system taking some of the most severe cuts in the country, other communities that Charlotte regularly competes with “are using what has happened here against us,” Millett said.

“We bragged that we were a five-star library system,” Woodward observed. “We’re not a five-star or four-star system now. We’re not a three-star library right now.”

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