Libraries might have to turn out the lights

Libraries might have to turn out the lights

June 13th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

A precipitous loss of funding coupled with an explosive increase in expenses prompted the Cherokee Regional Library System's board to take drastic action last week.

The regional library board reluctantly, but unanimously, voted to reduce services in order to balance its financial books.

Chickamauga Public Library Children's Department library assistant Martha Burrows shelves books.

Photo by Katie Ward

"There is no public service offered to the citizens that uses tax dollars more efficiently," Donna Street, chairman of the Dade County Library board, said before the vote.

Beginning July 1, all four branches as well as the administrative office will cut staff and hours of operation.

There are two reasons reductions are taking place at a time when the number of patrons using the Chickamauga, LaFayette, Rossville and Trenton branches is constantly on the rise.

One, the state is requiring library and school systems pay more - much more - for employee medical insurance. The other reason is local school systems are slashing financial support of public libraries.

The state is self-insured, meaning it pays workers' health insurance claims itself. Budgetary shortfalls at the state level have wiped out what was, in 2008, about a $472 million surplus, and State Health Benefit Plan premiums are skyrocketing.

Among those affected in Walker County are teachers and librarians.

Library Director Lecia Eubanks said the library has been paying 18.5 percent of salary as benefits for anyone working more than 18.5 hours a week who participates in the State Health Benefit Plan. Beginning July 1, the sliding scale will be replaced by a flat rate premium of $743 a month.

Eubanks said that where the library had paid about $1,657 annually in premiums for an employee working 20 hours a week, the system must now pay $8,916.

"That is about $100 more than their annual salary," she said.

The bad news will get even worse, as the monthly employer share of the premium paid by the library will rise to $912 over the next two years.

Next month's increase in the cost of insurance benefits will add about $30,000 to the Cherokee Regional Library System's budget. That hit, while staggering, could probably have been dealt with, but a second blow quickly followed.

School systems have traditionally contributed to the Cherokee Regional Library's annual budget because educators and administrators value the libraries offering after-hours learning opportunities as well as pre-reader and summer reading programs. But when faced with their own budgetary shortfalls, both Walker and Dade counties are prepared to seriously cut back on allocations to public libraries in the coming year.

Walker County's public school system for several years has allocated about $59,000 annually to the libraries for the support they offer education. While not a tremendous sum, those funds were a lifeline to a library system that has an annual operating budget of less than $500,000.

But the school board approved a budget for the coming school year that cuts $34,000 - 58 percent - from that amount, leaving just $25,000 for local libraries.

Answering the question about how to make up a $64,000 shortfall is bad enough, but Eubanks said there is still more bad news in store. The Dade County school system is expected to drastically reduce its financial support as well.

The reduction in the library budget could be about $83,000, an overall reduction of 15 percent, for the coming year. That figure is uncertain until Dade has a state-approved budget, something that will not occur until mid-August at the soonest.

As painful as reduced financial support will be this year, it could get worse. Schools cutting expenditures for libraries will exacerbate the regional library system's overall funding, as state grants, critical to its continued operations, are based on local levels of support.

Losing tax money provided by the Walker County Board of Education could jeopardize the library system's operating budget for years to come, but nothing related to the funding cut is on the BOE's meeting agenda for this month.

"Libraries are a hub of the community," Eubanks said. "Ask elected officials to make more funding available."

Corky Jewell, chairman of the boards for Chickamauga's library and schools, said candidates in the upcoming election, both for seats on the county school board and for the role of sole commissioner, have not mentioned libraries during their campaigns.

"I'd like to know how they would address the issue," he said. "What is their position with the library funding issue?"

Members of the regional library board agreed those elected to office at the state level should also be held accountable for cuts to the state budget that in turn impact local governments and agencies.

"The reductions to the library budgets have been going on for a good 10 years or longer," said Tom Harrison, a member of the Chickamauga Library board. "There is no fat left to cut. Let's get the line items back in [county and school board budgets] to provide the services."