Mountain Island branch library probably safe

$2 million needed to save other branches

by Frank DeLoache

Mountain Island’s branch library appears to have avoided the fate of at least five other community branches, which a citizen task force recommends closing if Mecklenburg County commissioners don’t put more money into the system.

The task force, which has been studying the library system for months, has recommended closing at least five community branches, including Cornelius and Davidson, on July 1, unless the county gives the library system an extra $2 million in the 2011-12 budget year.

Besides the two north Mecklenburg branches, the task force suggests closing the Myers Park, Plaza-Midwood and Hickory Grove branches to preserve or strengthen other parts of the system.

Leaders of the Future of the Library Task Force will deliver the group’s recommendations to a joint meeting of county commissioners and the library system’s board of trustees on March 21 at 6 p.m. in conference room 267 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. The meeting is open to the public.

The task force has recommended the library system follow a three-part strategy for the next two to three years:

• Maintain the Main Library and ImaginOn, which together account for about 25 percent of the library system’s resources.

• Increase staffing for all regional libraries because they offer more resources and services.

• Protect three branches in “fragile neighborhoods” – Scaleybark, Sugar Creek and West Boulevard – because residents in those areas are more likely to depend on their libraries for basic access to computers, the Internet and employment information.

Under those assumptions, the library system would still have enough resources to keep three or four other community branches open. At its March 1 meeting, the task force voted to keep open those branches that are farther away from a regional branch – because residents in those communities would have to drive farther to get library services.

Under that scenario, the Mountain Island, Steele Creek and Mint Hill branches would remain open. Information provided to the task force Tuesday showed the system would need $313,500 to keep the Matthews’ branch open, but budget analyst Sean Hogue said he can’t be certain exactly where library officials will run out of funds.

Some task force members, like Davidson Commissioner Connie Wessner, said they hope county commissioners will see the $2 million as “a relatively small price tag” to pay to avoid “a whole lot of hurt” and maintain community support for the library system as a whole.

And Wessner took exception to comments made by at least one task force member at the Feb. 15 meeting – that communities might offer funding to help keep their branches open. “That is just not going to happen,” Wessner said. She reminded the task force that Cornelius, Davidson, Mint Hill and Matthews joined Charlotte and the county in providing one-time help to support the branch system.

If the county does not come up with extra funding, Wessner also said, “We need to give these branches room to experiment … What can we do to be creative to continue to be part of the system?”

Also at the March 1 meeting, the task force adopted a position, based on data gathered from library systems across the country, that the county cut the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system too much, particularly last year, and the system now lags behind cities with which it would expect to compete.

In 2008-09, before most local governments were forced to make deep service cuts, spending for libraries in 55 comparable communities was $42.94 per citizen. Charlotte-Mecklenburg compared well, spending $41.98 per citizen. Since the recession, 13 comparable communities have cut spending for libraries to somewhere between $27.92 and $28.66 per citizen, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg has dropped even lower – to $25.84 per citizen.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg compares even more poorly if spending on Imaginon – which costs much more than regular branches – isn’t considered. Without Imaginon, Charlotte Mecklenburg’s per capita spending drops to $22.85 per citizen, task force members learned Tuesday.

“It’s not sustainable,” task force member Leonora Kaufmann said. “Let’s not be afraid” to say what the budget cuts did to the library system.

Task force members still strongly support ImaginOn, the multi-media, youth-oriented library in Uptown Charlotte, because they say no other community they’ve studied has anything as innovative.

If county commissioners would restore Charlotte-Mecklenburg library funding to the same per-capita level as those 13 peer communities, that boost would come close to the $2 million needed to keep all library branches open another year, the task force concluded.

But that represents an 8 to 11 percent increase in funding from the current year, and county commissioners are preparing for another tough budget battle.

Davidson Mayor John Woods, who attended the March 1 meeting as a spectator, said during a recess he expects the communities facing possible library closures will begin lobbying county commissioners to provide the extra funding.

In another significant policy position, a majority of task force members endorsed a recommendation to keep the library system’s board of trustees independent from the county. However, the task force said lack of cooperation between the library and county leaders in the past has led, in part, to some of the troubles assailing the library system now.

To improve communication, the task force recommended several “structural changes,” including:

• The county manager or his representative serving as a nonvoting member of the library’s board of trustees and on the trustees’ operations subcommittee. The task force wants county administrators to see – and have input for – library operations.

• The county manager serve on the selection committee that picks a replacement for outgoing director Charles Brown. The task force also wants the new library director to attend the county manager’s staff meetings, so that he or she sees – and has input in – county operations.

• The county manager also would serve on the annual  review committee for the library director.

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