City councilors leaf through a budget briefing provided by the library while they listen to Director Amy Wisehart give her presentation. Councilors must decide how to spend the $26.47 million in revenue they have budgeted for this fiscal year. They will hear similar presentations from each city department over the next two months. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY ZACH LANNING

Council starts budget talks



ELLSWORTH — In a budget presentation before the City Council on Monday, the Ellsworth Public Library proposed a surprising cut to its operating expenses: books.

Instead, outgoing Library Director Amy Wisehart, in her final budget presentation before the council, said the library would look to fundraise to cover the cost of books.

The move comes as Wisehart and the library’s Board of Trustees try to square their budget with the request from certain council members that they lessen the burden on taxpayers.

Two years ago, the council cut $100,000 from the library’s requested appropriation. Since then, the library has initiated a number of measures to try to cut costs and raise funds from other sources. Changes include staffing cuts, hour reductions and charging a now $30 card fee for library patrons from other towns to increase revenue.

Though it is well over the amount the council approved for fiscal year 2021 ($461,872), Wisehart said the $539,000 the library is requesting this year represents the lowest it can go without sacrificing services or losing employees.

“If you look at our budget, 85 percent is personnel-related,” Wisehart explained. “There is not a lot of excess that we can cut. We’re cutting books already, so we’re pretty much cutting everything we can cut before cutting staff.”

It’s actually staffing that represents the greatest increase in the budget this year. The library is looking to raise the starting wage for a worker at the circulation desk from $13.80, which it has been for several years. Wisehart says that figure is not in line with other city employees or other libraries in the area. That increase also would raise wages for other employees with many years of experience. But Wisehart thinks that staff at the library are more than a worthy expense, especially with the turnover in library leadership and an increase in utilization of the library coming out of the pandemic.

“I feel that our staff are our most important resource; they serve our community and do excellent work for us,” Wisehart said.

While no votes were taken on the proposed budget during the workshop, councilors signaled their positions with the questions they asked of Wisehart. Council Chairman Dale Hamilton maintained that the budget funded by the council for the library was strong and was skeptical about the impact reduced hours and staffing levels were actually having.

“I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘Boy, the library wasn’t available to me. I couldn’t use it for this,’” Hamilton said.

“Those are the kinds of things that are helpful to me when I’m going to make decisions about budgets. And when I don’t hear those things about those impacts, I just wonder, what’s the justification for increasing the budget and the cost to the community.”

Councilor Marc Blanchette was concerned that Ellsworth residents were still being asked to shoulder an unfair amount of the burden.

“The resident fee in FY 22 worked out to $55 per resident,” said Blanchette, referring to the portion of each resident’s tax bill that would go to the library versus the $30 fee nonresidents pay for a library card. “In FY 23, it bumps up 18 percent to $65 a head. Why are the residents being hit with an 18 percent increase per head, which is more than double the resident fee, and yet the nonresident is getting no increase?”

Councilors Casey Hanson and Michelle Kaplan, who have both worked closely with the library throughout the budget process, were dismissive of the arguments against the proposed budget.

“If we decide we need to buy a new plow for Ellsworth, we don’t complain that other people from other towns drive on our streets so they should be paying for our plows,” Hanson said. “We live in Ellsworth. It’s our library. We want it to be what we want it to be. The question about how much we’re willing to pay for it is how much we value our library.”

“These people are telling us how much it costs to run our library,” Hanson continued, referencing Wisehart and the trustees, “and I have no reason to disbelieve them any more than I have to disbelieve the Public Works director when she comes up here and tells us how much it costs to fix Christian Ridge Road.”

“As long as I’ve known Ellsworth, the library is one of the iconic locations … If you’re going to not fully fund it, you might as well paint over that picture right there,” said Kaplan, gesturing toward the painting of the library building in the mural on the wall behind the council. “I just can’t see not supporting our library financially. It’s one of the smallest city budgets and they’re taking the biggest cuts.”

Councilor Steve O’Halloran was impressed with the fact that the library is spending less now than it was in 2015.

“I don’t know any department that has gone backwards to this level, and kept going, in this city,” said O’Halloran. “I would support a huge increase to this library. Considering all of the expenses that have gone throughout this city with new trucks and new police cars and computer programs and extra personnel and assistants for assistants … I don’t know why we don’t have a million-dollar budget for this library.”

“I certainly would not support a million-dollar library because it’s not in line with other libraries of this size, nor is there a demonstrated need for that,” Hamilton countered. “We should base our budgets based on need. And every decision we make is based on that. And I understand the emotional attachment that everyone has, but asking questions is not saying that the library is not valued.”

Councilors also heard presentations from other city departments at the meeting, including General Assistance, IT and City Planning, among others.

On Monday, May 2, councilors will hear a presentation from the city’s public safety departments, followed by the School Department on May 9, as they work to figure out how to best distribute the $26.47 million they have budgeted in revenue for this coming fiscal year.

 

Zachary Lanning

Zachary Lanning

News reporter Zach Lanning covers news and features in the Ellsworth area. He comes to Ellsworth by way of New Jersey, which he hopes you don't hold against him. Email him at [email protected].

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