Library hours expected to dominate budget forum

Feb. 26, 2013 @ 06:05 PM

When the Town Council holds a public forum Wednesday night to give residents a chance to comment on the budget for 2013-14, the hours of operation at the expanded library will likely be the center of attention.

For nearly two weeks now, the council’s electronic mailbox has been filling with messages from citizens urging the council to not reduce operating hours when the library moves from University Mall back to its permanent, larger facility in Pritchard Park.

“This does not strike me as good policy and I urge you not to do that,” wrote JoAnn McJunkin. “Why make it more difficult to access this improved service?  This is not the time to cut back on availability.”  

As a cost-saving measure in another tight budget year, Town Manager Roger Stancil has given the council the option of trimming hours – from 68 to 54 hour per week.

The move would save about $433,000 in personnel and facility costs, both of which would increase in the expanded library. Most of the savings -- $300,000 – from reduced hours would be achieved through lowered personnel costs.

The other $133,000 in facility costs would come from reduced usage of electricity, gas and water. The costs of those utilities are all set to increase dramatically at the larger library.

Council members have also weighed-in electronically on the proposal to reduce hours.

“I strongly urge the Town Council to follow up our financial commitment to construct the library expansion with funding support to maintain the distribution and number of hours currently scheduled,” Councilman Jim Ward wrote.

Stancil has proposed two options to operate the library 54 hours a week instead of the current 68-hours a week

Under both options the library would on Monday -Wednesday open at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., and close at 8 p.m. instead of 9. On Thursdays, the library would also open at 10 a.m., but close at 6 p.m. instead of 9.

And on Fridays, the library would maintain its current operation hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Major differences would occur on the weekends.

Under Stancil’s recommended option, Saturday library hours would be cut back four hours, opening at 1 p.m. and closing at 5, instead of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Option 2 calls for the library to operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.

Meanwhile, Stancil recommends that the library continue to operate from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays, while Option 2 has the library closed on Sundays.

The library’s Board of Trustees, the Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation and the Friends of the Chapel Hill Library have launched an intense lobbying campaign to convince the council to keep the library’s current hours.

Martha Brunstein, president of the foundation’s Board of Directors, said the groups collected 700 signatures at the library over the weekend from supporters who want to keep the current operating hours. She reported another 400 signatures on an online petition.

“We want the library to be fully funded when it opens,” Brunstein said.

She said the additional costs are not a surprise to council members and town officials who understood that more than doubling the size of the library would require extra resources.

Furthermore, Brunstein said, residents who can only get to the library on weekends and those who cannot afford to buy books or computers would be hurt the most by reduced hours.

She expects a vocal crowd of library supporters to attend tonight’s meeting.

“We are asking people to come and stand up for the library,” Brunstein said.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the council should not make a decision about the library hours and funding independent of the town’s other budget considerations.

But Kleinschmidt did say he does not particularly like the schedule being recommended by Stancil and has asked him to look for a third option.

“I’m not excited about the schedule proposed to us,” Kleinschmidt said. “If that’s it, then maybe we do need to make that decision independently.”

He also wondered if a better option might be closing the library one day a week, possibly a Monday, rather than eliminating or reducing weekend hours.

Kleinschmidt noted that the council increased the library’s budget by $350,000 this fiscal year, which would enable the library to hire additional workers to fully staff the expanded library.

But he said the problem is uncertainty about whether the money will be available to keep the workers on board in June after the council adopts its new budget for fiscal year 2013-14.

At least one councilman, Gene Pease, said in the council’s electronic discussion that he won’t be swayed by pressure applied by special-interest groups.

“I understand the pressure we are getting from the special interest library groups, but that will not sway me on increased funding until we look at all the other priorities we have to consider in the schedule we have established,” Pease said.

The debate over funding for the expanding library comes amid an especially tight budget year in which the town faces an $880,000 budget gap in its preliminary $52.5 million general fund.

In addition to extra costs for the library, the town is also wrestling with the expense associated with hauling its solid waste to a Durham transfer station, paying for street paving and health care for retirees.

“We need to be prepared for the possibility of phasing in operations,” Kleinschmidt said. “The building is going to be with us for a long time.”