At our Assembly of Governments meeting on November 30, 2009, we (the BOA) gathered with elected officials from Chapel Hill and Orange County to discuss the future of the library systems in Orange County.  

Here is a very basic overview:  Chapel Hill built their library in 1958.  In North Carolina, library service is traditionally a county function, but there are a few municipalities that have their own library.  See http://www.publiclibraries.com/northcarolina.htm.

The library in Chapel Hill is one of the best, if not the best, in the state by various neutral accounts.  At some point (the late 1980s or early 1990s), the County started allocating money in its annual budget to Chapel Hill to go toward the operating costs of the library, recognizing this benefit the taxpayers of Chapel Hill were providing.  By statute, the library must remain free to county residents if the town accepts county money for the library.  This annual allotment of money (now 10.50% of the Chapel Hill library budget) has not increased since 2001.  Chapel Hill has cried foul about this, and rightly so.  45% of the patrons who use Chapel Hill’s library are not Chapel Hill residents.  Operating costs for the Chapel Hill library have increased yearly, and as a result, Chapel Hill has considered charging a fee for non-Chapel Hill residents.

Enter Carrboro at some point during this time period.  The largest town in North Carolina without a free-standing library, Carrboro has lobbied the County for one for many years.  As a result, within the past decade, the County allocated money for a Carrboro branch library (located at McDougle Elementary School) and a Carrboro Cybrary (located in the Town of Carrboro’s Century Center).  While these two locations are well-used (in fact, the largest percentage of users of the Carrboro branch are Chapel Hill citizens), they are limited in the services they can provide to the public.  For example, the Carrboro branch at McDougle is only open during non-school hours.  It also has limited week-end hours.  Likewise, the Cybrary is located in a very small space, and is not open in the evenings.

Orange County recognizes that they need to increase the amount of money they are providing annually to Chapel Hill.  Likewise, they recognize that they need to provide more service for southwest Orange County, and have plans for a southwest library in their CIP.  Once the southwest library opens, the Carrboro branch library and the Cybrary will close, folding into this new library.  Chapel Hill, in the meanwhile, wants to expand their current library with bond money approved by Chapel Hill residents a few years ago.  Chapel Hill would like to see the County help with this expansion.

Here are possible scenerios that could come out of this dilemma: 

1.  Chapel Hill goes forward with their expansion without any expansion money from the County.

2.  Chapel Hill goes forward with their expansion with expansion money from the County.

3.  Chapel Hill does not go forward with their expansion, and does not charge non-Chapel Hill residents a fee, opting instead to continue to accept the annual allocation from Orange County.

4.  Chapel Hill does not go forward with their expansion, and begins to charge non-Chapel Hill residents a fee, and so are not eligible for an annual allocation from Orange County.

5.  Orange County allocates money in the CIP toward a southwest library, does not give any expansion money to Chapel Hill, and continues to give Chapel Hill an annual operating allocation.

6.  Orange County does not allocate money in the CIP toward a southwest library, gives expansion money to Chapel Hill, and continues to give Chapel Hill an annual operating allocation.

 And so on!  Here are a few points I want to make.  First, notice that Carrboro, while heavily impacted by decisions that Chapel Hill and the County are going to make, really has no say in this matter, other than to offer an opinion.  Second, the County has said that it does not have any money to go toward a Chapel Hill expansion at this time.  Third, the reason that Chapel Hill needs to expand is basically because of the service it provides for the County.  Fourth, the services provided at the Chapel Hill Library are more wide-ranging and more heavily used than at any current county library.  This makes sense, because not only has Chapel Hill has put a significant amount of money into their library, their citizen base is located practically on top of their library.  The County, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to serve residents who live across the entire county.  To me, comparing circulation figures is like comparing apples and oranges.  And fifth, the average Chapel Hill, Carrboro or county citizen really does not care who is paying for or operating the library they use, but they do expect it to be something they get with their tax dollars.

We all are at a critical junction in this situation, as Chapel Hill contemplates this expansion.  The logical long-term solution would be to merge the two systems into one library system, a process that would take time and a commitment of money by the County.  The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County and the Asheville-Buncombe Library System are examples of this.  This option truly makes the most sense, because the overall library system needs to serve the county, and it is hard to work toward that goal when one entity is exercising independent decisions about the future of library services that affect all of the residents of the county. 

The accomplishment of this would require some type of joint library board, certainly in the short run, and perhaps permanently.  Chapel Hill would need to feel comfortable that the level of service currently being provided to its patrons stayed consistent.  The joint board would also need to figure out how best to serve the growing needs of southwest Orange County.   Whether this is by expanding the Chapel Hill Library, or building a new free-standing library in southwest Orange County, or by closing the current Chapel Hill Library and building a new Chapel Hill-Carrboro Library, would be part of the dialogue and planning that would need to take place over the next several years.