Task force ready to close library branches

Mountain Island branch likely safe

by Frank DeLoache

In crucial votes Tuesday, a task force studying the Mecklenburg library system signaled its support for closing four to six more branch libraries to enable the rest of the system to survive two or three more years with no additional money – following two years of draconian losses.

And judging from the criteria favored by the task force, Cornelius and Davidson libraries, with two of lowest circulations in the system, seem almost certain to fall in that group.

The Matthews and Mint Hill branches, each with higher circulation numbers, seem more likely to survive, based on the task force’s discussions Tuesday.

At the same time, the task force recommended that county decision-makers appoint a smaller committee to consider closing the Main Branch library downtown and move its services, including the Robinson-Spangler North Carolina Room, to other, less expensive downtown buildings or institutions.

But task force Chairman Jim Woodward, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said making such a change to the Main Branch will take more than a year. He steadfastly resisted the recommendation of a subcommittee, led by Davidson Commissioner Connie Wessner, to:

• Close the Main Branch in the coming year.

• Add hours for the branch libraries in “challenged,” lower-income neighborhoods.

• And leave all the other branches in the system as they are – on reduced schedules – for at least another year.

Woodward argued forcefully that the task force needed to address the resources that can be shifted in the system of regional and branch libraries.

“Assume the resources don’t change, do you want to keep the current library system that we have in place?” Woodward asked. “If the answer is no, where do you want to shift the resources?”

In other words, “keep it like it is or close branches,” responded task force member Andy Heath, who supported the proposal to close the Main Branch.

Woodward drew support from Queens University President Pamela Davies, who said she could not support closing the Main Branch. Davies said a city like Charlotte needs a main library in its center, though other task force members said the library could still have a presence – just not in the current building.

Davies then proposed three priorities, assuming the Main Branch remains open:

• First, protect branch libraries for the challenged neighborhoods: Sugar Creek, Scaleybark and West Boulevard.

• Second, restore the six regional libraries, which are larger and can offer mores services, to a full double-shift operation.

• Third, use any money left to maintain branches that are farthest from a regional library and have the highest circulation figures.

Making no mention of contributions Cornelius, Davidson, Mint Hill and Matthews made to the library system this year, Davies asked if anyone had thought of telling the towns the library would pay half the cost of keeping their branches open – but they’d have to come up with the other half.

Under the priorities outlined by Davies, and initially adopted by a task force majority, the library system would only have enough money to keep two branch libraries open, according to Sean Hogue, a financial consultant advising the library system and task force. Seven would have to close.

But Wessner succeeded in getting the task force to consider a less drastic alternative that will likely save some branches. Instead of restoring the regional branches to a double shift, Wessner asked the task force to just restore the regionals to a full single shift.

That would leave enough money save four to six branches, Hogue said.

So the question becomes which libraries will make the cut. Eliminating the three “challenged” branches from consideration, Cornelius has the lowest circulation (117,219) and Davidson the second lowest (141,843).

Matthews has the largest circulation (593,903) but is much closer to the regional branch than three others:

• Steele Creek, 395,093 circulation and 13.6 miles from Morrison Regional Library.

• Mint Hill, 351,142 circulation and 9.8 miles from Independence Regional Library.

• Mountain Island, 269,310 circulation and 9.3 miles from Beatties Ford Regional Library.

Wessner and Heath both warned that closing branches is not so much an issue of inconvenience for those residents as it is a blow to broad-based support for the library system.

“You’re stirring up a hornets nest,” Heath said.

When Queens’ Davies said the towns might have to make an offer to save their branches, task force member Scott Stone pointed out that town residents are county taxpayers also and are paying for a library system.

Davies responded, “They have access to the regional library. It’s not like they don’t have access to the library system.”

“They’ve got cars. They can go to a regional,” Woodward said a little later.

Library system as county department

A subcommittee studying future governance of the library system is suggesting that the library would get more support and better use of its resources if it becomes a department of the county.

Right now, an independent library board operates the library system, and some task force members said they are concerned about making the library an arm of the county and subject to political pressure. But speaking for the subcommittee, former Charlotte Observer Editorial Page Editor Ed Williams pointed out county commissioners already appoint all but one member of the library board and provide 90 percent of the library system’s funding.

Branches by the numbers

The Future of the Library Task Force has considered the following information in its discussions of the library system.

Task Force members are committed to protecting three branches, West Boulevard, Sugar Creek and Scaleybark, because they are in lower-income neighborhoods. The Mountain Island branch also appears safe because of its proximity to a regional library.

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