By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
The Dade County Library’s recent run of bad luck will culminate this week in slashed staffing and shorter hours that start next week, but proponents hope that a straw poll question on July 31st general primary ballot will be at least a first step toward funding help.
After this week, the library will be closed Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. Open hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Staffing will go from the library’s current three employees to one full-timer and three part-time assistants working greatly reduced hours. An increase to employer-paid health insurance for full-time workers precipitated these cuts, so that, ironically, the library will find itself hiring two new employees without benefits even as it lays off one of its seasoned veterans.
And as if more irony is needed in the situation, this comes at a time when demand for library service has never been greater. Donna Street, until her term expires Saturday the chairperson of the local library board of directors, and who also serves on the regional board, said by phone on Monday that cardholders at the library have gone from 2,800 at the end of 2000 to approximately 8,800 now. “The usage is higher than it’s ever been even though the space is smaller,” she said.
The library currently occupies a 1,000-square-foot storefront on Highway 11 North while its permanent building on the Trenton town square undergoes expansion and renovation. At the risk of beating the “I-word” to death, a grand opening for the expanded facility is planned for Aug. 14. Funding for the long-needed revamp was cobbled together from several sources and the work started before the library’s spate of fiscal woes began.
Of the library’s three sources of local funding, Dade County reduced its contribution from $69,500 in 2011 to $64,800 for 2012; the city of Trenton eliminated its library funding altogether for its 2011 budget, replacing it only conditionally, and this year has only contributed $5,000 of the $30,000 it had supplied in earlier years; and no one knows until August what the Dade County Board of Education will do, though the worst is expected – Georgia school systems were hit with the same health insurance hikes that devastated libraries.
Meanwhile, Ms. Street says the library is needed more than ever. “We’re changing the way we use books, maybe, but the public still needs access to knowledge,” she said. “Libraries have always been the main access points to knowledge.”
And, these days, they are important portals to technology as well. Ms. Street says she’s seen patrons faxing their mortgage papers from the library, and library manager Marshana Sharp says about 40 patrons a day sign up to use the library’s computers. “They’re doing everything from checking their email to paying their bills to renewing their food stamps,” said Ms. Sharp.
In that regard, added Ms. Street, other public agencies such as the Department of the Labor send taxpayers to the library to fill out forms or complete other business.
It is in this troubled environment that the library has chosen to test the water of public support through a straw poll question on both the Democratic and Republican ballots for the general primary election July 31. The question is the same on both ballots:
“Should the Dade County Commission dedicate a fixed portion of county property taxes to the funding of the Dade County Library?”
Straw-poll questions are non-binding, simply meant to gauge the desires of the electorate, and the county government is under no obligation to act on them in any way. But enough yes answers, says Ms. Street, say anything more than 50 percent, will force the commission to sit up and take notice.
On the other hand, a no answer will simply mean the library must work harder next time, added Ms. Street. “If the straw poll is not yes this time, it doesn’t mean we’re through,” she said.
She pointed out that a change that has become reality just this year, the election of district commissioners by the county at large, began as a straw poll question way back in 1996. “Something worth doing is worth sticking with, even if you don’t succeed the first time,” she said.
The at-large election of commissioners was effected by state legislation the county requested after voters showed they wanted it in the straw poll of 2008, but Ms. Street says she believes the county commissioners would be able to devote a millage portion to library funding under their own steam – if, that is, they wished to do so.
“I don’t think our commission believes the public wants a public library bad enough to pay $5 extra on their taxes,” she said.
Ms. Street hastened to add the $5 figure was arbitrary; she is still working with Tax Commissioner Jane Moreland on what millage portion would be needed to stabilize the library and how much if any it would change an individual homeowner’s tax.
But Dade County Commission Chairman Ted Rumley was frankly dubious that Dade taxpayers would vote themselves a millage rate increase, which is what he said the measure amounted to. He said that if the straw poll question garners sufficient yeses, the commission’s immediate action would be to schedule public hearings on the proposed change.
Rumley added that Dade County values its library and has always funded it to the fullest extent it could afford.