By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Here’s the good news first: After leaving it in October of 2010, the Dade County Public Library hopes finally to reopen the doors of its permanent building on the Trenton town square this summer.
“We’re getting very close,” said Lecia Eubanks, director of the Cherokee Regional Library, of which Dade’s facility is a branch. “We want to go forward with a date we can keep, and we feel like that date is in August.”
Ms. Eubanks said Chazler Inc., the Chattanooga contractor chosen to complete the stalled remodeling and expansion of the library building, is currently putting finishing touches on the new circulation desk.
The construction will take the library from its original 8,000 square feet to 12,000, expanding the building into its back parking lot and reallocating and modernizing interior footage to add meeting rooms and study spaces. The expansion, long needed, was delayed while funding was cobbled together for it: A USDA grant of $100,000, state money totaling $653,000, plus local support Ms. Eubanks expect to come to about $100,000 altogether. “It’s like a million-dollar project overall,” she said.
When construction finally began in fall 2010, the expanded library was slated to reopen in just a few months, in May 2011, but last spring brought double disasters: April 27’s evening tornado tore the roof off the library’s temporary home in the Ingle’s shopping center; and almost simultaneously, in the face of what Ms. Eubanks described at the time as grave performance issues, the library exercised its right to fire Knight and Associates, the Atlanta contractor originally awarded the construction job.
As Ms. Eubanks had been warned it would, all work ground to a halt as contractor A pulled out and North American Specialty, the bonding company that had insured the job, began a new bidding process to choose contractor B. In due time, Chazler was awarded the completion contract, but differences as to ancillary costs associated with the delayed construction, such as attorneys’ fees and rent for temporary locations, arose between the library and the bonding company, further delaying resumption of the project.
“I thought negotiation was back and forth but until we get a number from them, I feel like we’re negotiating by ourselves,” said Ms. Eubanks. “It’s a game of wait and see who can hold out the longest. It’s not a game I’m enjoying playing.”
That game is as of this writing unresolved, but Ms. Eubanks says those issues have not delayed construction: Chazler was given the go-ahead to begin construction in January. Meanwhile, NAS and the library have taken their arguments into mediation – a process that has proved to entail its own set of delays.
“We had to agree on a mediator and then the mediator is attending, the library people and the attorneys and personnel are attending,” said Ms. Eubanks. “Then you have the bonding company, their attorney, and then in this case the general contractor that we terminated, their attorney wanted to be present also. That’s why it was delayed until March.”
So it wasn’t until March 29 that all the parties came together, said Ms. Eubanks, but she felt encouraged by the session. “A big thing happened that day,” she said. “That day when we left, the bonding company asked for additional documentation on our costs associated with completing construction that were not part of the general contract. By them asking for that, it was our indication they were acknowledging them. Before, they were telling us we were only entitled to liquidated damages, not the other.”
Now, said Ms. Eubanks, a second mediation date has been set for Thursday, but she hopes NAS will offer a settlement even before then. “I am hearing some rumblings that they’re willing to give us a number,” she said.
Again, these fiscal maneuverings have not caused the rollback of the projected stab 2 move-in date, which administrators had overoptimistically set for May 2012, the anniversary of stab 1. The latest setbacks have been incidental, and nobody’s fault, said Ms. Eubanks. For example, the library’s new state-of-the-art HVAC system had apparently gone into hibernation as it sat all those months waiting to be installed, requiring a period of TLC. “It needed a few days to wake it back up, but it’s fine,” said Ms. Eubanks.
Another variable has been furniture ordered to replace that lost in the storm, she said. Libraries order furniture from the same suppliers as schools, and schools get pushed to the head of the line. It is still unclear if the new fittings will arrive in time for an opening in August. Still, one way or the other, the library hopes to sail triumphantly over its sea of troubles and dock triumphantly in its permanent home this summer.
Now. The bad news: There may not be adequate staff to keep the expanded facility open many days a week.
Georgia libraries share not just furniture suppliers but also health insurance providers with the state school systems, Ms. Eubanks explained, and the same sharp hike in employer-paid premiums that has forced boards of education to slash teaching staff also impacts the Cherokee Regional Library. “It’s just horrible timing,” said Ms. Eubanks. “We have much less room to absorb anything in our budget because we’re small to begin with, and the impact is going to be devastating. I’m afraid that we’re going to have to have some cuts in library service to offset it.”
As usual these days, the word “cuts” boils down to firings. “The only line item that we have large enough to absorb any cut is personnel,” said Ms. Eubanks.
Dade’s library staff, currently stuffed into a 1,000-square-foot storefront on Highway 11 north, is already skeletal at three, and Ms. Eubanks says it’s heart-breaking to consider letting any of them go after their heroics in the past year. “They’re our biggest asset,” she said. “They’re there to serve, and they feel it passionately.”
But while expenses are going up, revenues are expected if anything to decline: The city of Trenton cut the library out of its 2011 budget entirely during planning sessions in 2010, reinstating it – after considerable public outcry – only provisionally and only in increments. So future support from the city is still up in the air, and right now Ms. Eubanks is waiting to hear whether the Dade library can also expect cuts from its other taxing authorities, the county and board of education.
“The community just needs to decide how much library do they want,” she said. “I’m not a miracle worker and I can’t provide something that I don’t have the money to provide it with. We’ve been doing that for so long and now it can’t continue. It’s really up to the community to determine how many hours we’re going to be open.”
But as it determines that, Ms. Eubanks hopes the community remembers how vital the library is to it. “We’re providing services that can’t be provided by anybody else,” she said.
With all the good news and the bad news, the budget woes, the construction delays, the moving-day euphoria coupled with the dread of the ax, Ms. Eubanks says the staff careens from day to day on an emotional rollercoaster. “It’s just almost more than we can bear,” she said. “But know what? We are going through with the summer reading club, and those kids are never going to know all these issues that we’re having.”