Library system wasn’t ‘overbuilt’ before cuts came

Number of branches comparable to similar systems in U.S., Canada

by Frank DeLoache

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system was neither “overfunded” nor “overbuilt” before the county imposed big cuts on the system last year.

Information from 55 other library systems in the U.S. and Canada that serve similar population sizes shows that the system is right in the middle in spending, the total square feet of library space and the number of branches its operates.

“I can’t conclude from this that we had too many branches,” said James Woodward, chairman of a citizen task force studying the library system. “And I will tell you I came on the task force thinking we had too many branches.”

The information gave some reassurance to task force members that the library was on solid ground before the recession hit in 2008, but it doesn’t give the group insight into how other library systems are responding to budget cuts. A research group at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is putting together information on budget cutbacks to library systems in 13 comparable cities and counties, including those the Charlotte chamber considers Charlotte’s main competitors.

The task force has a March 1 deadline for delivering its findings to the library system’s board of trustees and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

While the task force continues to wrestle with its main recommendations, the group endorsed positions in two areas: volunteer hours and private fundraising.

Volunteer hours

The drastic cuts in library staff and hours prompted an outpouring of volunteers, particularly for town branches Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Davidson, but the task force, after hearing from the library staff, agreed that the system can’t expect volunteers to continue giving that amount of time “after the current crisis environment dissipates.”

In the current fiscal year, volunteers will account for about 9 percent of total staffing hours for the libraries. That amounts to 54,000 hours of volunteer time, a 349 percent increase from 2007.

Task force members agreed that library staff should set a continuing target of volunteers contributing at least 5 percent of total staff time for basic library services. The group needs to make clear that volunteers “can be a supplement but not a substitute for paid staff,“ Task force member Bob Bisanar said. “I think some segments of the community think that a lot more can be done with volunteers than is realistic.”

Setting the target won’t blunt the library’s efforts to keep volunteers, Karen Beach, the system’s director of community engagement, assured the group.  “We don’t ever want to turn away volunteers,” she said. “That’s a target. We don’t stop at that.”

Right now, a new committed corps of volunteers, the greatest number in the towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Matthews and Mint Hill, is supplementing the paid staff so 20 branches can remain open.

At their last meeting, several members of the task force asked about the possibility of building an even larger force of volunteers. But library administrators said the four town branches have “maxed out” on the number of volunteers that can help. To keep the branches open and return to a five-day week in the four towns, the system already has doubled the amount of volunteer time – to 5,000 hours a month.

Just to maintain basic “core services,” the library system needs the equivalent of 264 full-time staff members, according to Sean Hogue, the financial analyst advising the task force studying the library system.

But the system, which has lost almost half of its staff to budget cuts, only has the equivalent of 223 full-time staff.

Private fundraising

Though they debated a target amount for the library to raise, task force members agreed that the library system needs to increase its fundraising efforts and begin planning for an endowment campaign.

Woodward, who is president emeritus of UNC Charlotte, and Pamela Davies, president of Queens University of Charlotte and another task force member, said library trustees should consider creating a foundation with the task of raising donations for the library.

Davies suggested the library study the fundraising model used by the YMCA, in which local branches recruit volunteers to lead fundraising efforts. Michael DeVaul, senior vice president of organizational advancement for the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, said his organization raises $3 million to $4 million annually, which represents 10 to 15 percent of the Y’s annual budget. DeVaul also serves on the library task force.

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