By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
When Donna Street took the microphone Thursday night to address the Dade County Commission on behalf of the local public library, County Executive Ted Rumley admonished her, “You need to talk a little bit louder.”
Ms. Street replied, with some astonishment, “Me?”
Indeed, Ms. Street, a former teacher and assistant principal in the county schools, has long been one of the Dade County Library’s most vocal proponents. Now, with the library threatened with extinction by a proposal from Schools Superintendent Shawn Tobin to yank funding 100 percent, was clearly no time to pipe down.
Accordingly, Ms. Street turned up the volume:
First, she said, she had reserved a slot on the commission’s agenda not to detail the library’s current battle for survival, which arose only on June 27 when Tobin announced he would propose dumping the library from the school system’s 2013 budget, but to explain to the commissioners the straw poll question library supporters have placed on both Democratic and Republican ballots for the July 31 primary election:
“Shall the Dade County Commission dedicate a fixed portion of county property taxes to the funding of the Dade County Library?”
Asking that question, said Ms. Street, is the supporters’ first step in an attempt to regularize the library’s funding, thus avoiding crises like the present one. “The question came about because we wanted to figure out a way, some of us private citizens wanted to figure out a way, to fund the library on a consistent basis rather than having to, quote, beg three times a year for money from the funding agencies in Dade County,” said Ms. Street. “We never knew what we were going to get. We were always at the mercy of the problems that we have now.”
In fact, accidental though the timing might be, the library’s current peril neatly illustrates the need the straw poll question is meant to address, highlighting how vulnerable the library is to the whims of fortune and politics.
Of the three independent Dade taxing authorities that have supported the library since the 1970s – the county, the city of Trenton and the board of education – the county has been the most dependable endower, only cutting its yearly contribution from $69,500 to $64,500 when times got rough.
But both the others have tried to duck out entirely. First, Trenton, which had been kicking in $30,536, slashed the library 100 percent from its 2011 budget, though in the end it did relent, if only provisionally.
Now Dade’s new schools superintendent, Tobin, faced with funding cuts from the state as well as with the new budget-breaking, insanity-level increases to employer-paid health insurance that had already crippled the library, whose employees are covered by the same state-mandated policy, has taken the position the library is no burden of his but the problem of the county, and in his proposed budget has reduced the B of E’s $37,725 in 2012 to zilch for 2013.
The library had in reaction to the insurance catastrophe already cut staff and closed down two additional days a week, cutting service hours to the minimum allowable to maintain status as a public library branch. Dade’s library, with three in Walker, is part of the Cherokee Regional system of libraries.
This threatened abandonment by Dade’s school system, coupled with a 58 percent cut from Walker’s, would not just force the Dade branch to close yet more days but for the whole system to fall below “maintenance of effort” local funding required by the state, Ms. Street told the commission. “Now the ramifications of the school board completely not funding us could be serious to the whole area,” she said.
“So what is the impact on the region, the regional library system?” asked District 4 Commissioner Peter Cervelli.
“That all state funding and federal funding could be cut,” said Ms. Street.
This immediate peril will be decided when the Dade Board of Education adopts its 2013 budget, slated for July 23. The public has the opportunity to weigh in on the matter at open hearings at 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. on July 16, and on the July 23, at 6 p.m., immediately before the board meets. All hearings will be in the Board of Education building in front of the high school.
But back to the straw poll question: Ms. Street said in researching ways to make library funding sustainable she had learned that libraries are one of the institutions county governments are allowed to tax for support for, and that two Georgia counties already do. Miller County devotes .5 mill annually to its library and Seminole County .749, she said. In Dade’s case, Ms. Street thinks the number would be .405.
Another of the library’s desires is to be put under the authority of just one taxing agency, said Ms. Street. Lecia Eubanks, director of the Cherokee Regional system, present at the meeting, put it this way: “If three people are responsible … but not one is solely responsible, then no one feels any responsibility.”
And Ms. Street added that the plan is to make the library funding not a tax increase but budget-neutral: If the library is put under the aegis of the county, for example, the city and school board would lower their rates commensurately.
Ms. Street went over the history: “The first library in Dade County was, we think, on two shelves of the Western Auto, which is [now] Lalito’s,” she said. “It then moved to the basement of Case Hardware and then it then moved to the old depot when we stopped having train service.”
She said that Dade County had worked hard to get its present library built on the Trenton town square but had known from the first it was too small, and she recounted the library board’s struggles to get local sales tax dollars as well as state and federal grants to expand it. “In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have,” said Ms. Street.
The renovated library is due to open Aug. 14 – with one full- and one part-time employee left on the payroll to staff it. The library’s Friends group will be conducting tours in connection with the public hearings – check for times on the Friends of the Dade County Library’s Facebook page.
Ms. Street stressed that the straw poll question on July 31’s ballot is nonbinding and that a yes vote does not oblige the county to do anything. In any case, she said, her talk to the county commissioners was for information only.
“I want you to think about it,” she said.