ELLSWORTH — A discussion between library trustees and councilors on the library’s funding request went south when the two boards met on May 12. But councilors appeared poised to compromise when they met for a budget workshop five days later.
The council is knee-deep in reviewing budget requests from all city departments for fiscal year 2022, including from the library, which saw its requested appropriation from the city cut by $100,000 last year.
Library Director Amy Wisehart had presented councilors with a $544,907 budget request on May 12 that was 3 percent lower than the library’s FY21 request. The sum represents 81 percent of the library’s total $672,207 operating budget. But councilors expected a figure more in line with the $461,872 city appropriation they approved last year, after slicing off $100,000. That loss was offset by using money from the library’s surplus account, and a committee was formed of trustees, library personnel and councilors to hash out the issue before this year’s budget talks. But they only met once, and trustees based their FY22 budget on what it costs for the library to operate as it has historically.
This only made councilors dig in, with Chairman Dale Hamilton cutting off library trustee Craig MacDonald mid-sentence to adjourn the meeting.
“You come here and start saying the same things you’ve presented before and start an accusatory tone about what our position is,” Hamilton told the trustees earlier in the discussion. “If you want to go down that line, ask all your questions and we’ll adjourn.”
But Hamilton struck a softer tone to fellow councilors on May 17, suggesting the city compromise by offering $50,000 more than the library was funded last year, noting all the benefits the library brings to the city. Some councilors hedged.
“That’s still an 11 percent increase,” Councilor Marc Blanchette said. “I don’t know any other department that gets that.”
At issue is out-of-town library users. Of the total 4,819 cardholders, 1,850 are Ellsworth residents, with the rest from neighboring communities, many of which do not have a local library. The library requested funding from several towns this year. Some complied, others did not. Funding was denied by voters in Hancock, Orland and Gouldsboro but approved or partially approved in 12 other towns. In Franklin, the request was denied, but the town will reimburse residents the $25 fee for a nonresident card.
In total, the library is set to receive $50,000 in funding from other municipalities and $7,500 in nonresident card fees. But the $25 card fee charged to nonresidents is significantly lower than the breakdown for Ellsworth residents, which comes to $64 per capita based on the city’s population. And Ellsworth absorbs the full cost for towns like Hancock, which has 327 card holders but refused the library’s funding request at Town Meeting this year.
“That’s the core issue that I have,” Hamilton said.
However, keeping the library only for Ellsworth residents would not lower operating costs by much, Councilor Michelle Kaplan said, as most expenses would remain outside of possible staffing cuts.
Adding to the overall issue is both the larger role the library plays in the community and as a draw for local businesses. In Wisehart’s presentation to councilors, she said that in the winter of 2019, a total of 70.7 percent of library patrons visited a business before or after stopping at the library. In busy summer months, the library estimates about 300 visitors a day. But library visitors are not always cardholders. Many attend meetings or story times or use the Wi-Fi and computer services, or just take a break.
“We have many active users who do not have a card at the library, so a focus on the number of cardholders as a way to determine library value is a limited picture,” Wisehart said after the May 15 meeting.
The council set a final May 27, 6 p.m. budget workshop, where outstanding budget questions, including the library’s, will be decided.
“I thought about it and thought about it,” Councilor Gene Lyons said, noting he had come to the same conclusion as Hamilton regarding funding. “Why don’t we just split [the difference] with them? You’re not going to close the library … so you gotta fund it.”