Cherokee Regional Library System, comprising four separate public libraries in Walker and Dade counties (one each in LaFayette, Chickamauga, Rossville and Trenton), relies on appropriations from Walker and Dade counties as well as from its four host cities in order to remain eligible each year to receive additional funding from state and federal grants and foundations.
Just before the turn of the new year, though, Cherokee Regional Library System director Lecia Eubanks received some troubling financial news.
“The week before Christmas I read an article in the Dade County Sentinel online,” she said. The article, which discusses the Trenton commissioners’ budgeting for the year 2011, she said, mentioned that the annual funding for Dade County Public Library would be cut completely this year due to financial shortages.
“That’s $31,073. They had just taken it out of the budget,” Eubanks said.
Not only would that place the Dade Public Library at risk — “Taking that library out of their budget would have crippled it,” Eubanks said — but it would put all four libraries in the Cherokee Regional Library System in danger of losing state funding.
The additional state and federal money is contingent upon receiving a consistent amount of funds from local gov-ernment each year. Losing the contribution from the city of Trenton could jeopardize the financial well-being of the other three libraries as well.
Begging for the sake of the libraries, Eubanks said she didn’t get much support from Trenton’s commissioners.
“They were sympathetic, but they said they just didn’t have any money.”
Eubanks quickly called together a small militia of nearly two dozen library supporters, including three teenag-ers from the Dade Public Library teen advisory board, to petition the Trenton City Council on the library’s behalf. At a special called meeting to discuss the city’s budget on Dec. 30, they tried to convince the commissioners to make budgetary cuts elsewhere in order to preserve the library, to no avail.
“I remember thinking on the way home...you know, they wouldn’t do this to the fire department,” said Eubanks. “I don’t think they understand how vital a public library is to a community.”
After two weeks of despair, though, an eleventh-hour reprieve was found. During the Jan. 17 Dade County com-missioners’ meeting, Eubanks was told that $30,000 had been found in interest gathered on a sewage utility account, and that those funds would be allocated to the library for this year.
This is, however, just a temporary fix.
“One of the commissioners said ‘It took us seven years to get this interest,’” Eubanks said. She was warned that after this year, it is very likely the library will get no more reprieves, as the city of Trenton simply is not getting enough revenue to provide the library with any funds.
“They need to be coming up with a plan now,” said Eubanks.
As for her part, Eubanks already has a plan, which she is currently presenting to the Walker and Dade county commissioners.
“I’ve talked with (Walker County commissioner Bebe Heiskell) about how libraries are funded and it is a prob-lem.”
What Eubanks would like most now, in order to prevent further financial fear, is to have the Cherokee Regional Library System listed independently on the Walker County — and hopefully Dade County — tax digest.
What this means, in simple terms, is that a small and consistent percentage of each year’s property tax revenues would be set aside exclusively for the library system. In order to obtain it, however, it is likely that the county prop-erty tax rate would have to be raised by a small amount. “I think a quarter mil is about where we’re headed.”
She notes that this practice is already in effect in Miller and Seminole counties, and that it’s a perfectly legal way for libraries to be assured a consistent amount of funding each year.
“It’s a way of making it very transparent, where our money comes from,” she said. “By having us listed separately on the tax digest we’ll have an amount we can count on from year to year.”
However, as local residents are frequently fearful of property tax increases, Eubanks wants to make the idea public now, with the hopes that Walker and Dade County residents will voice their opinions on the matter before any legal documents ever come to table.
Though she understands public fear of taxation, she is hopeful that Walker and Dade County residents will rec-ognize just how important libraries are to the wholeness of a community and will be willing to accept a small tax increase. “I would be very surprised if the public did not come in support of it.”
For the average taxpayer in Walker County, an extra quarter-mil in property tax rate would mean an extra $0.00005 on the dollar owed to the county per year. For a home valued at $100,000, it would amount to an extra $5 in property taxes.
Though it isn’t much money per person, raising property taxes is a very unpopular topic, and one which is likely to cause a great deal of contention.
Eubanks urges local residents to weigh the benefits against the extra cost.
“We would be able to open back up full-time on Saturday,” she said excitedly.
Cherokee Regional Libraries used to be open to the public 56 hours each week. This past year, that was reduced to 47 hours, limiting the availability of necessary resources for many Walker and Dade residents.
Though it is safe for another year, the Dade Public Library, which like the LaFayette-Walker County Public Li-brary is planning a USDA grant-funded expansion within the year, has a very shadowy future if consistent local government contribution is not made available.
For instance, Eubanks said, without the city of Trenton’s $30,000 lucky-find contribution, the Dade County Li-brary would have been forced to close completely two days out of the week as well as lay off a number of employees in order to make ends meet.
Eubanks notes that the four libraries in the Cherokee Regional Library System have already made many sacri-fices to get by in these troubled times; further downsizing would simply be disastrous.
The entire library system receives approximately $400,000 from the state each year, Eubanks explained. This is barely enough in itself to cover staffing, book purchases and operating costs.
“What I can’t make (the commissioners) understand is that if there’s no funding for the library it’s their prob-lem.”
In times where jobs are scarce and many job-hunters don’t have the online or computer resources at home to fur-ther their career searches, libraries are a necessity. Students who need access to the library’s research to further their studies similarly would be hurt if the libraries were to be closed more frequently. Local literacy and enter-tainment would suffer as well.
“It does bring up a problem of making sure that everyone does feel the responsibility of funding us,” said Eubanks.
“(Being listed on the tax digest) might just be a solution to the problem that will always plague libraries,” she said.
Indeed, in years when the budget is less tight, or even well-stocked, libraries still seem to draw the short straw with funding.
“When times are good, we’re not getting that additional funding,” she said. “We are still hurting from (Walker) County’s decrease in their SPLOST commitment...We are still counting on getting part, or all, all really, of that $500,000 that was taken out.”
In preparing for the future of the libraries, Eubanks is dividing her time between making sure the system stays afloat and preparing for temporarily moving the LaFayette and Dade libraries while expansions take place.
“That’s another thing I’ve had trouble explaining,” she said. “People are asking why we’re still doing the expan-sion if the library’s broke.” Funding for the expansions, however, has already been set aside, she explained, as they are being paid for through SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) allocations, state funds and USDA Rural Development grants using Recovery Act federal stimulus dollars. Local city and county financial contributions, or lack thereof, will have no impact on the financial state of the expansions, but certainly may affect whether the li-braries will still be around to enjoy those expansions.
Eubanks is still looking for a good location to temporarily house the LaFayette library for a year while construc-tion takes place on the current library building on South Duke Street. She is currently looking at either the old Food Lion building, which has more space, or the old CVS store space next to Bi-Lo, which has a better location.
No matter what the new building may be, the beginning of the moving process for the LaFayette-Walker Public Library is set for Aug. 1, 2011.
“We really didn’t want to interrupt summer reading clubs,” she said, explaining the date. The library will be closed while moving for two weeks, at which point is will open in its new location, where it will stay for one year.
Construction on the LaFayette library expansion is set to begin Sept. 1 and will take approximately one year to complete.
When the LaFayette expansion is finished, if the libraries are still financially afloat, patrons will be able to en-joy a large community meeting room, dedicated quiet study rooms, a much larger computer lab, a special young adult and teen section with a technological center, an upgraded children’s’ services area and story time location and an expanded genealogy room. A covered drop-off and a coffee bar are in the works, too, but are not yet set in stone.
In order to raise money for the libraries throughout the year, Eubanks is planning to present a wide variety of naming opportunities to the public, inviting them to contribute financially to the Cherokee Regional Library System in exchange for being able to have a part, however small, of the newly expanded LaFayette library named to their liking. This would be a great opportunity for someone to make a contribution in memory or honor of someone, Eubanks explained. This, along with numerous small fundraisers she has planned throughout the year, will hope-fully keep the library going as long as possible.
Eubanks would genuinely like to know what the public thinks about levying an extra quarter-mil rate on the property tax in order to save the libraries of Walker and Dade counties, and asks interested persons to make their opinions known to her or to the Walker or Dade county commissioners.