State and local governments are in a world of financial hurt. When the pandemic started back in late winter, the priority was preventing the spread of disease and saving lives. It wasn’t long before other elements of the Great Debate crept in. How do we save the economy, on which lives also depend? That was quickly followed by the less reasoned but still popular: “You can’t tell me what to do!”
With zero leadership from Washington, each state charted its own course. There was lots of trial and even more error. Some states took the hands-off approach; others ordered tight restrictions. Some reopened too soon; others kept the wraps on despite abuse from worried-to-death business owners. Pressure to reopen was enormous.
Maine got off to a lumpy start, with executive orders from Governor Janet Mills flying thick and fast. “Guidance” was given and reversed, and deadlines were altered too fast for businesses to keep up, but the Governor stuck to her guns and the results? Among the very best in the country. Businesses that struggled along are now seeing a mini-blossoming of tourism on the coast that just might make survivors out of them, and contagion rates remain low.
As towns began to grapple with budget shortfalls, municipal priorities emerged. Ellsworth City Council members quickly learned what happens when they mess with funding for their public library. The public does not like it. A proposed cut of $134,161 was met with cries of dismay.
Towns surrounding Ellsworth with no libraries of their own are able to make a contribution so their residents may use Ellsworth Public Library services. Those municipalities’ contributions have most recently amounted to only about $40,000 of the library’s almost $700,000 budget. It has been a source of contention for years. A new proposal to charge towns on a per-capita basis is on hold until Oct. 1. Failure of a town to ante up will result in an annual individual fee of $25 for its residents.
Another library budget in the crosshairs was the Blue Hill Public Library. With a budget about the same size as the Ellsworth library, news reports put the Blue Hill municipal subsidy at only about 16 percent of library revenues. Still, the proposed cut represented about half of that municipal contribution. When the library advocated for full funding, the Blue Hill selectmen struck back.
Included in the material for the July 14 Town Meeting was a document titled “Information regarding the Town’s charitable contributions.” The selectmen laid out their approach to charitable contributions in the upcoming budget, which was to reduce all contributions by 50 percent except for emergency services such as ambulance, LifeFlight and a nutritional program for women and children.
The selectmen bridled at the response of the library to the proposed cut. The library director, according to the document, “initiated a campaign promoting the defeat of the entire town budget because of the cut…” The selectmen explained what would happen if the town budget were defeated. They detailed the amount of library funding compared to other local nonprofits. They mentioned the 11 percent increase in the library budget over the previous year and made a glancing reference to the library’s “steadily expanding programming.”
Toss in the size of the library’s endowment ($6.6 million), the library director’s salary compared to those salaries in other, larger towns (it’s higher) and the percentage of donated funds that come from Blue Hill (89 percent) and it was a master class in how to explain and advocate for a municipal budget. The budget passed with the cut intact.
The four towns on Mount Desert Island each have their own library with full operation year-round. The islands of Swan’s, Frenchboro and Cranberry Isles also have year-round facilities that serve an essential role as gathering places in these tiny communities.
The other towns in Hancock County either share a larger town’s library or have very small libraries of their own with limited hours and tiny budgets. Their collections are customarily donated books, lovingly curated with the help of volunteers. Small they may be, but each offers its own brand of local hospitality and good books to read.
There are 22 Hancock County public libraries listed in the Maine State Library’s Public Library Directory. All have struggled with COVID-19 restrictions, most closing for a time and then gradually reopening with revised services such as curbside pick-up or inside browsing by appointment.
On top of all the other COVID stressors, habitual library users suffer mightily from lack of library access. Library directors know it and have worked tirelessly to help us get our mitts on a book. Libraries are the only free public space open to all in most communities. They are an essential service at any time, now more than ever.