Hamilton County residents might have to pay to use library

Hamilton County residents might have to pay to use library

May 31st, 2011 by Cliff Hightower in News

Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press Kara Grooms, left, sits next to Patrick Hook as she uses one of the public computers at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Public Library to help in her job search.

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If Chattanooga takes over full funding of the public library system, library officials say people who live outside the city probably will start paying a fee to check out books or movies or use the computers.

"They are going to charge county residents something," said Eva Johnston, interim director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library.

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, who first heard about the proposal last week, said that won't sit well.

"I don't think they are going to be happy about that," he said. "I think there will be some resistance."

Mayor Ron Littlefield's spokesman, Richard Beeland, said it's only fair for county residents to pay a fee because they won't be supporting the library directly.

"You can't go to Atlanta and check out a book," he said. "You can't go to Signal [Mountain Public Library] and check out a book."

The change arises with the expiration of the 45-year-old sales tax agreement between Chattanooga and Hamilton County. The agreement gave sales tax collected in the city to Hamilton County, which used it to help support social service agencies that the city also funded.

Littlefield has said the city would take over funding the downtown and Northgate library branches. He said the city also will fund the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, but he wants the county to fund the countywide health department.

The mayor's proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year that begins July 1 includes $5.7 million for the library, an increase of about $100,000 over this fiscal year's $5.6 million. The city is hoping Collegedale will take over the library branch in that city.

The budget still awaits City Council approval, but city and library administrators say negotiations are under way for changes within the library system.

Johnston said she doesn't know what the fee will be for nonresidents. She said people who live outside Hamilton County can join the library for $10 a year or $25 for three years.

"I don't know what they want to charge," she said.

Besides the fee for nonresidents, Chattanooga officials are considering dissolving the board whose members are appointed by the city and county and replacing it with a board of city appointees, Johnston said.

"After next month, I don't know if we're even going to have county board members on there," she said.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said charging county residents a fee would be the city's decision, but dissolving the library board as the city is considering could be more complicated.

"I'd have to go back and look at the agreements, " he said. "There's a number of legal issues."

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor declined to comment Friday, saying he has not studied the issue. He expects Coppinger or the County Commission to ask him to study it further.

"I'll look at it at that time," he said.

City Attorney Mike McMahan said it's a complex issue because the city and county jointly own the property housing the downtown library and the Northgate branch.

"You can't really end the partnership because it's already been created," he said.

Christy Viens, a county resident who lives off Thrasher Pike, came out of the Northgate library branch Wednesday with a stack of books in her hands. She said she goes to the branch once a week with her children, works downtown and frequents the downtown library as well.

She said she wouldn't like paying a fee.

"If I have to pay a fee, I would," she said. "The public library should be available to everybody."

But a Chattanooga resident also visiting the Northgate branch doesn't believe county residents should pay a fee for the service.

Elizabeth Abernathy, a student at Chattanooga State Community College, noted that the county is picking up the tab on the health department and not asking city residents to pay an extra fee for its services. The city should return the favor on libraries, she said.

"If the county is picking up on other areas, it kind of weighs itself out," she said.

Contact Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CliffHightower.