Library


A lot has been happening this spring, so I thought I would summarize a few matters with this post.  One is that I have been involved in more extra meetings than I thought possible working on our MPO’s transit plan, which includes expanded bus service as well as a light rail line between UNC Hospitals and Alston Ave.  We are under the gun to convince the Orange County and Durham County Commissioners to vote to have a transit tax on the ballot this fall; this money would go toward the transit plan with money from other sources such as a vehicle tax increase and federal and state funds.  The transit tax, however, is a key component in the plan, and one that will require voter education and buy-in if it is indeed on the ballot.

Another bit of news is that our town manager, Steve Stewart, announced that he will be retiring at the end of the summer, and so we have begun the process of hiring a search firm to help us fill this most critical position.  In my opinion (and I am not alone), Steve has done a fine job as town manager, and our task will be challenging as we seek to find someone who brings his level of skill and experience to the position. 

Speaking of the Town Manager, Steve masterfully presented another tax-increase free budget to us this month for the upcoming fiscal year.  He accomplished this predominantly by cost cutting where possible, keeping some positions vacant, and delaying some capital purchases.  These are not options we can do every year, but as the economy improves, hopefully we will be able to restore money in areas where we have had to cut or delay expenses.

We voted at one of our meetings to a rezoning for a property off of Hillsborough Road so that the County could consider an option to purchase the property to build a Carrboro branch library on the site.  Many residents came out to speak in favor of the project, but there were also several residents (mostly neighbors) who spoke who did not want the site rezoned for a library.  Although we ended up voting for the rezoning (a supermajority vote of six affirmative votes out of the seven members was required because a protest petition had been submitted by neighbors), we also expressed concern about the plans for traffic flow to the library and the impact on the streets surrounding the property.  When the site plan comes before us in the future, we will be looking at this closely. 

Finally, at one of our meetings, we reviewed the parking deck that will be constructed at the East Main Street project.  We gave comments and feedback to the developer, and were told that they hoped to break ground later this summer on both the parking deck and the hotel on the property.  This is a much anticipated project in Carrboro, one that will be a key to our plan for growth in the downtown area.

It has been a busy spring!

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.

There has been much in the news lately about the Carrboro Branch Library, a branch of the Hyconeechee Regional Library System. The Orange County Board of Commissioners approved a budget for 2008-09 that resulted in a reduction of money for temporary personnel and thus a cutback of hours at the Carrboro Branch Library as well as other branches in Orange County.

After fervent outcry from patrons and other interested parties, county staff identified money to cover the cost of personnel, and the original times of operation were reinstated at the library branches (see HERE for a story about a proposed cutback of hours at the Carrboro Branch Library, and HERE for an editorial by Board of Aldermen members Mark Chilton and Dan Coleman).

What had been made apparent these past few weeks is that Carrboro residents are passionate about their library. Persons living in southern Orange County and particularly Carrboro have been lobbying the BOCC for some time for a free-standing library in Carrboro. The financial challenges of such a venture are daunting, to say the least, and are somewhat complicated by the fact that Chapel Hill has a library (built and funded almost entirely by the town, and open to Orange County residents) that sits about a mile from the border of Carrboro.

It is my understanding that the BOCC has allocated 2.7 million in their future Capital Investment Plan for developing a library in Carrboro. This recent publicity about the library will hopefully serve as a catalyst for public officials and citizens to strategize about the financial challenges of a free-standing library in Carrboro, and how we can work toward ultimately reaching this goal, given the forecast of the county and town financial pictures for the years to come.