$583,000 deficit looms for libraries

Do we close Main Library or branches? Or cut hours even more?

by Frank DeLoache

Not expecting to receive extra funding from Charlotte and four towns again in 2011, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system will face a $583,220 deficit next year, even if county commissioners spare the system from any more cuts.

Some members of a citizen task force studying the libraries think the system doesn’t need two large center-city facilities – ImaginOn and the Main Library – that account for 30 percent of the library system’s budget. At a meeting of the task force Tuesday, Jan. 4, they suggested closing the Main Library could help get the system through the short-term budget crisis, while library officials restructure the larger system for the future.

Sean Hogue, a financial consultant advising the task force, said during a break in the meeting that closing the Main Library would enable the system to cover the $583,000 deficit and maintain other branch operations as the current limited schedule.

If the library system didn’t close a large facility like the Main Library, the system would have to lay off another 13 to 20 staff in the budget year starting July 1. With that loss of staff, Hogue offered the task force two main options: cutting hours at all branches even more or closing branches.

And that prompted some task force members to question whether the system can really afford to maintain a 20-branch system in the long term.

“If this is all the money we’ve got, then you’re looking at a different configuration than the one we have,” Jeff Armstrong, managing partner of Eitell and Armstrong, said.

“Do you want 14 libraries of excellence or 20 libraries of mediocrity?” asked Bill Millett, president of Scopeview Strategic Planning.

But Carol Hull, a Matthews resident and vice president with Carolinas Healthcare System, reminded task force members: “What would the citizens say about that?” She asked library system Director Charles Brown what he heard from citizen groups around the county during last year’s budget crisis.

“They said, ‘Don’t close our libraries,’” Brown replied. “They said, ‘We don’t care if they’re open two days a week. We want our libraries open.’”

That sentiment prompted other task force members to say some branches might remain open but with different services – computer access, for instance, but not circulation of books.

“Could we have a library touch point that would vary according to each community it serves?” Davidson Commissioner Connie Wessner asked.

Scott Stone, vice president of Merrick and Co., wondered if library users would be willing to pick up library books or use a computer terminal at a different site, say a bank or a local grocery store.

Task force members such as former Charlotte Observer editor Ed Williams said they are ready to lobby county commissioners for no more cuts, but others, like Millett, said they can’t see commissioners protecting the library when schools and police also face tighter budgets.

But if county commissioners reduce the library budget by even 10 percent in the next fiscal year, Hogue projected the layoff of 50 to 70 more staff, and then the only remaining question is: “Which library branches would you close?”

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