Effingham County’s pending budget will include a little more money for the libraries, and commissioners also pledged to help the library system find ways to further pare expenses.
Library officials pleaded with commissioners at their meeting Tuesday to boost their financial support of the county’s two branches. The budget draft included an additional $15,000 for the libraries over the fiscal year 2014 funding level, and commissioners agreed to push that total to $50,000, along with potential savings in other areas.
“Effingham residents and officials have agreed it is time to address the erosion of library funding,” said library board chairperson Christine Kirkland, “and restore access to library services. It is time to give Effingham residents increased access to the library they enjoyed prior to the downturn.”
Even commissioners pointed out how much they hear from residents about support for the county’s library system.
“There are a few things the county does for the public that people are asking for,” said Commissioner Steve Mason. “This is one of them.”
Added Kirkland: “Libraries have been a popular topic in the county this spring.”
Kirkland said the libraries have experienced serious reductions in funding since 2009, and it has led to cuts in hours and services.
A second revision of the draft budget pegged the county’s spending plan at $27.08 million, an increase of just less than 1 percent over the current fiscal year budget. The 2014 fiscal year ends June 30, and the approved FY14 budget was $26.83 million.
The FY15 budget is scheduled to go into effect July 1, once it’s adopted by commissioners. Commissioners also agreed to other cuts, eliminating such planned expenditures as a $100,000 line item in capital spending for the commissioners, $100,000 in personnel and $100,000 in roadside mowing costs to trim the budget to $26.81 million.
“If we can add to the library’s funding and keep the budget at last year’s level, that’s a home run,” said Chairman Wendall Kessler.
Commissioners are targeting adopting the budget at their June 20 meeting and approve a millage rate once the board of education agrees to its property tax levy at its June 19 meeting.
“I want to be supportive of the libraries,” said Commissioner Vera Jones. “But we need to figure out where to get the money and the time to do that.”
The proposed budget upped the library’s funding from $445,872 to $460,872, an increase of 3.4 percent. The library system had asked for nearly $525,000, and Tuesday night, Kirkland asked for a $200,000 increase in the libraries’ budget.
Commissioners agreed to trade additional library funding for the school system’s financial backing of school resource officers. The library, along with other agencies, took a 10 percent cut in funding in 2010.
The school system used to fund the libraries, but after the economic downturn, that has fallen on the county’s shoulders. The schools have funded the school resource officers in return.
“Certainly we think community libraries are important to any community that’s growing, especially Effingham County,” said Superintendent Randy Shearouse, “but we just had to make that decision to not fund them anymore because we were struggling to keep teachers employed.”
Libraries’ hours reduced
The FY13 budget originally had the county’s library funding at $422,650. As of now, the Springfield branch library is not open on the weekends. It is also open only four hours on Mondays and Wednesdays. The Rincon branch is not open on Thursdays or Sundays. The Springfield library is open 25 hours a week, and the Rincon library is open 37 hours a week. In 2009, the Rincon library was open 60 hours a week, and the Springfield library was open 52 hours a week.
“This will allow us to return to full hours,” Kirkland said.
To have both buildings open at the same, the libraries will have to hire at least one additional person, said Live Oak Public Libraries director Christian Kruse. There are nine employees at the two county branches, and many of them are part-time, Kruse said.
“The community wants them open more hours, and we want them open more hours,” he said. “We know there are people who are not using the library now because they can’t get there in the hours they need.”
Commissioners also requested more information from the libraries and to have it more consistently.
“What we need is the number bottom line to have Springfield on the weekend,” Kessler said.
Reduction in services, but libraries remain popular
Commissioner Phil Kieffer suggested a three-year plan to get the libraries’ funding back to where it approaches its former level.
The cut in hours has led to fewer visits, fewer requests of information and fewer items in circulation. It also has forced the number of programs to be reduced and the ones still running are overflowing with children, Kirkland said. The cuts also mean fewer books, periodicals, e-books and CDs available, and students also have limited time to access the Internet and go online for homework assignments. There also is limited time for government and employment resources online, Kirkland said, impacting such endeavors as job searches.
“Reduced hours means reduced access to a valuable community asset,” she said.
There were 413 kids at the libraries’ kickoff for its summer reading program, Kirkland said, and in one day, there were 865 visits to the library.
Commissioner Steve Mason, who last year pushed for a greater dialogue between the county and the library, said pointed out he did not vote for the budget last year because there was no discussion with the library about its budget. Mason sounded call for increased support of the library but didn’t believe the county could meet what the library was requesting.
“I will support a significant increase,” he said. “But I don’t think we can afford a $200,000 increase.”
Mason said the library offered its own cuts when commissioners were looking to cut funding for services and agencies by 10 percent across the board.
“Ten percent from things that are running leaner and tighter to begin with hurts bad. That’s what happened to the library,” Mason said.
He also added that not everybody has access to the Internet and that’s a need the library fulfills.
Kruse said there was no meeting with county staff before the budget was drafted. Wright said an email was sent to the library asking for their budget request, and the library staff responded.
The city of Guyton contributed $8,000 last fiscal year to the library. Rincon and Springfield do not provide funding for the libraries. Under the service delivery agreements, the libraries are considered a countywide service and city residents’ property taxes go to cover its cost, according to county finance director Joanna Wright.
The Springfield branch electric bill is high, Wright said, and if it came under the county’s payment it could be significantly less because of the lower rate the county pays. The bill last year was $45,000.
The county also will explore cutting costs for the library on its grounds maintenance and irrigation.
Assessors also ask for help
The board of assessors also asked for the commissioners to bring its field staff’s salaries closer to those of appraisers in other counties. Assessors board member Lowell Morgan said appraisers for the county make as much as $10,000 less than those in adjoining counties, and a level 1 or 2 appraiser in Chatham makes as much as a level 4 in Effingham.
“I understand the difference in Chatham and Effingham counties. We can’t advertise for a (level) 1 or 2 appraisers and be able to hire them because they’ll come to this county and make $10,000-$15,000 less,” he said.
Morgan said the assessors department has hired trainees, including some with college degrees, but they want to increase their salary from the trainee level to the certification level they have reached this year. Most are at level 1, he said, and will be level 2s shortly.
“If not, all we’re going to do is train these people for other counties to pick up,” he said. “And then we’re back to hiring and training again. And they can’t go out and do appraisals until they’re certified. There is no money, no flexibility for these people once we train them and get them to level 2s.”
Morgan added that assessing property in the future will get more complicated, and the department stands to lose some of its most experienced appraisers in the near future.
“There are some people who are approaching the age of retirement,” he said. “We could lose some people. We don’t have the staff to replace that.”