By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
“This is a sad day for Dade County,” said Charlie Browning, addressing the county board of education at a public hearing that preceded the body’s Monday night meeting on the budget, which this year includes a 1-mill tax increase to the school tax.
But Browning, who serves as chairman of the Dade County Board of Assessors, was not fussing at school board members about the tax increase. He was berating them for a cost-cutting measure that by Monday’s meeting seemed a foregone conclusion despite plea after plea from citizen after citizen at the total of three public hearings held on the proposed budget: slashing of all funding for the Dade County Library.
Schools Superintendent Shawn Tobin had announced the proposed cut to library leadership only June 27. Protest from library supporters was immediate and massive – crowds packed the room and spilled into the halls Monday as they had at the two previous hearings – but board members sat obdurate through the speeches and pleas, as they did through Charlie Browning’s, and in the end passed the budget as proposed.
“The superintendent is not your employer,” Browning told them. “The people in this room are your employers.” They appeared to have forgotten that, he said: “It seems the board has become a rubber-stamper of the superintendent.”
Seventeen others addressed the board on the library’s behalf. Eddie Pittman quoted board members the old saying: “Don’t tell me what you value. Let me look at your checkbook and I’ll tell you what you value,” adding: “Cutting the funding for the library down to zero is a pretty big statement.”
Dade’s public library historically been funded jointly by the county, the city of Trenton and the board of education, most recently at about $65,000 from the county, $30,000 from the city and $37,726 from the B of E.
But no legal instrument enforces this arrangement, and in February Doug Eza, an out-of-town consultant hired by the school board, recommended dropping the library funding to cut costs in the system’s already beleaguered budget.
The library, though, was pretty beleaguered itself, having operated at what Cherokee Regional Library System Director Lecia Eubanks calls “food stamp level” for many years, and the cut is not one she predicts the library can survive.
At issue is not just the $37,000-plus from the school system but state support as well. Georgia requires what it calls “maintenance of effort” for public library branches – libraries are meant to be supported by the communities they serve, and if local funding does not reach a certain level the state withdraws its own dollars.
“This school board has a reputation of being all about and maybe only about sports,” Eddie Pittman went on to board members. “I want you to prove me wrong on that.”
He reminded them that the library was to have a grand opening for its newly renovated permanent building on the square in August. Without adequate funds, he warned, that would be followed by a “grand closing.”
Marshana Sharp, who started as a children’s story time volunteer and continues to run that end of operations as library manager, began her plea to the board: “I may stutter. I’m used to everybody sitting on the carpet.” She told the board summer reading numbers had doubled even in the 1,000-square-foot storefront the library has squeezed into since its first temporary home was damaged by April 2011’s tornados.
“I believe education is a way to a better way of life. I don’t believe closing the library will improve education,” said 80-year-old Verenice Hawkins, Dade’s first public health nurse.
She reminded the board that she and other library board members had attended the February meeting at which, apparently, the library’s fate had been decided. “The board was in the mute mode and said nothing about stopping funding,” she said.
Ms. Hawkins told the board that without the library the schools’ function would be impaired. “I believe education is a way to a better way of life. I don’t believe closing the library will improve education,” she said.
And she said she knew that the schools were under no legal obligation to continue the funding, but: “Sometimes things should be done just because they’re the right thing to do.” Ms. Hawkins got applause and a loud chorus of “Amens.”
Library system director Lecia Eubanks spoke as she had at the other two hearings, this time begging the board at least not to discontinue funding until the library can find other sources. “It cannot just stop cold turkey, or the library will close its doors,” she said.
Several speakers pled with the board to make up the library funding, or the half share of $19,000 Ms. Eubanks said would keep the doors open for another year, by lowering school thermostats by two degrees.
A little girl spoke, and so did an old man. “Think about your own legacy,” said a woman. “We are not defined but what we say we believe but how we act in difficult situations,” said a man.
But it was all to no avail. Only one board member, David Powell of District 5, the at-large position, stood up for the library, making a motion to amend the budget to include the funding.
His gesture clearly won the hearts of the library supporters, who gave him a standing ovation, but did not move his fellow members. The motion died for lack of a second, and the others outvoted Powell 4-1 to adopt the budget proposed by Tobin.
Board members sat through all the speeches as still and expressionless as statues but Gary “Mut” Massengale did address the library supporters before the vote, reminding them the school system was running on a deficit budget. “We have asked our teachers and employees to sacrifice enough,” he said. He said the $19,000 they asked the board to pony up represented the salary of another person.
“If you would like to pick a name off that list,” he began, and was interrupted by a cry from the audience, “How about Tobin?”
Board member Jeff Forester also spoke, blaming the state for the budget crunch, as had Tobin before him, who began the hearing as he had the previous two with a PowerPoint presentation on the millage increase.
Forester mentioned as part of his decision process a picture Doug Eza showed the board of a bus driving off a cliff in his own PowerPoint, and he gave the library a suggestion for alternate funding “If you want to take private donations, that’s an option,” he said.
In fact, the library has always accepted donations, but the library board’s Linda Wilson said after the hearing they would probably not suffice to keep it going. “I don’t think we’re going to run the library on fundraisers,” she said.
Ms. Eubanks, also consulted after the hearing, said the library had already planned to close Saturday for two weeks as it moves into the renovated building. That will go on as planned, after which the library will open for 20 hours a week, probably Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, she said.
Maintenance of effort should not become an issue until the state reviews funding at the end of the year, she said, but after that: “We will not be granted a waiver for this amount of money, and they will be talking about pulling the state support.”
She explained that the state considers local funding levels system wide as opposed to county-to-county, so that Dade’s lack of support could cause the whole four-library system to forfeit state dollars. “Before Cherokee Regional Library System would let that happen and cause the other libraries to lose their state funding, they would most likely have to close the Dade County Public Library down,” she said.
She said the Dade library’s last hope was that the county would step up to fund the library, perhaps through dedicating a portion of its millage rate to running it as proposed on a nonbinding straw poll question on the July 31 primary ballot. “The next line of courage is going to have to come from the county commission, because they do have it within their power,” she said. “Legislation is in place.”
But Dade County Commission Chairman Ted Rumley said by telephone Monday night, as he has before, that the county is supporting the library all it can. “We’ll have to make it work with what we’ve got,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
For library supporters, though, whose faces on Monday night illustrated the meaning of the word “heartsick,” it sort of is. As Lecia Eubanks said, “I guess we have this year to plan the closing of the library.”