ELLSWORTH — City councilors and library trustees came to an agreement last Thursday evening that will lessen proposed cuts to the library budget while still slashing what the city needs to raise in taxpayer funds for the library for the upcoming fiscal year.
The city will still reduce its 2021 appropriation for the library (the amount it needs to raise from taxpayers) by $134,161 compared to last year.
But after an outcry from citizens and trustees, councilors proposed offsetting the cut using $70,000 in taxpayer money that had been raised to fund the library in previous years and wasn’t spent, which means it won’t add to this year’s tax bill.
It’s not, however, a permanent solution, just a one-year bridge to give trustees time to implement their plans to raise more money from outlying towns.
“It’s a one-time deal to get you through this next year, to allow you to have the time to make the changes, to get the support,” said Councilor Heather Grindle. “I think a year is a long time, especially because this conversation has been going on for more than a year.”
The compromise reached on July 9 means the city’s appropriation to the library this upcoming year will be $461,872, or $134,161 less than in fiscal year 2020. Trustees had already reduced their initial budget proposal by $34,161 after a meeting with councilors in mid-December; councilors cut an additional $100,000 in June, to the surprise of trustees.
In previous years, the library has spent less than it has budgeted. When that has happened, the leftover money has been put aside for emergencies and capital improvement projects, such as redoing the 30-year-old HVAC system or repairing the chimney.
Councilors suggested allocating $70,000 from those unspent funds — which is taxpayer money that has already been raised — to offset the cut in appropriations. Since the library generally underspends, said Council Chairman Dale Hamilton, trustees should then be able to find an additional $30,000 in savings in this year’s proposed budget. That would offset the additional $100,000 cut, he said.
“What I’m suggesting is that we look at the budget over the past couple of years over what was budgeted by line item and what was actually expended to see if we have a consistent underspending in some of those line items,” said Hamilton. “If that’s the case, based on what I see, then we’re not cutting anything, we’re just budgeting more accurately.”
Trustee Ron Fortier said that the library has tended to be “a little bit conservative” with its expenditures, so as not to get “into a situation that every year we’re coming begging for a little bit more because we’re over budget.”
Roughly $70 of each Ellsworth taxpayer’s bill went to supporting the library this year. With the cuts, that will now be around $51. The library appropriation accounted for 2.6 percent of the overall city budget this year; this will bring that down to around 2.2 percent of the $20.8 million the city will seek to raise via property taxes in 2021. Outside towns, whose residents make up a little less than half of the library’s cardholder base, contributed $40,000 this year. But in recent years, councilors have increased pressure on trustees to get outlying towns to contribute more.
“Those towns are laughing at us,” said Councilor Marc Blanchette. “Their residents can come here and get library services for much cheaper than the Ellsworth taxpayer.”
“Library trustees have made a good faith effort to reduce the city of Ellsworth appropriation by over 5 percent this year,” said Director Amy Wisehart, noting that the initial proposed appropriation was the lowest in nearly 15 years. “That is built into our strategic plan … Library trustees are hearing the feedback; we’re all concerned about the budget.”
To help boost outside revenue, trustees had also planned beginning in July to implement a cardholder fee starting at $25 for out-of-town residents whose towns don’t contribute the full requested amount. The plan got pushed back to October because of the pandemic. Trustees had also been doing more fundraising and had started to draw off investments in recent years.
But councilors, wanting to force the issue, decided last month to cut an additional $100,000, a move that took trustees by surprise and prompted an outcry from citizens, including more than 60 who demonstrated against the cut before the meeting last Thursday.
Part of the stated rationale for the cuts was to bring the budget in-line with what taxpayers in other similarly-sized towns pay, which range from roughly 1 percent of the city budget in Old Orchard Beach to 1.8 percent in Kittery, with per-capita costs between $32 and $57, according to figures provided by councilors last month.
But Trustee Ann Dyer said Thursday that “Many libraries over the past 15, 20 years have faced incredible underfunding and budget shortfalls, so I do caution you against comparing us a dollar for dollar amount when other libraries may be doing different things — they may be severely underfunded.”
Hamilton said that he has not received any indication from residents that library services were lacking.
Trustees also were concerned that the cuts will affect their ability to raise money from outlying towns.
“If we can’t demonstrate that the city of Ellsworth is willing to fund the city department that is the library,” said Dyer, “I see those conversations with those 18 surrounding towns being much less successful.”
While the plan will result in a tight budget for the library, the aim is to not have to reduce services, hours or staff while trustees figure out how to get funding from elsewhere, including cardholder fees (projected to bring in $5,000 in new revenue for the first year), fundraising ($10,000) and investment fund revenues ($38,500).
Trustees had objected to the appropriation cut in part because they had not been able to see if their plans to increase revenue from outlying towns would work. The agreement reached last week is aimed at alleviating some of the pressure.
“This is a plan that doesn’t begin yesterday but next July then so we have that time,” said Dyer, noting that cutting library services, particularly in a pandemic, would hit low-income residents the hardest.
“So much of what we do see is those same people trying to look for work, how to use an online application they may never have come across before, creating an email address so that somebody will hire them,” said Dyer. While it won’t be easy to ask outlying towns for more in the middle of such difficult economic times, she said, “I’m optimistic, I’m hopeful, I’m hesitant, I’m all of those things.”