By Ron Fortier
With so much press and electronic media time being dedicated to the Ellsworth Public Library funding issue, I feel that a few facts might need to be brought to light to better understand the whole picture.
Many of the statements which have been made both by members of the City Council and some public electronic posts are not completely factual, so please consider the following:
- Since before I joined the Board of Trustees in 2001, the outlying towns have been supporting the library financially. Over the years, we have slowly increased the “per cardholder rate” that we request on a yearly basis, with a goal of increasing the amounts to better reflect our costs and being as fair and equitable as possible to all.
- We believe that the City Council erred in its calculations, mostly by not asking for the correct information. In our formulation of costs, we calculated what it would cost to operate the library for the use of residents only. If this were the case, our costs to keep the building open were not much different. The biggest change of expense would be the additional staff hours to serve the additional patrons from surrounding towns. We calculated that to be pretty close to 1.4 staff members (now called full-time equivalents – FTEs). Simple math set the per-cardholder fee at that time in the $25 to $30 range. We were requesting $27 per cardholder for our 2018/2019 FY.
- In February of 2019, councilors Hamilton and Hudson attended our regular meeting to push the idea of the library becoming strictly private (nonprofit) and be “supported” by a yearly donation by the city. Subsequent meetings with Manager David Cole and Finance Director Tammy Mote never resolved this issue. Consultants contacted by the city advised against this move; no further meetings were arranged. Knowing the somewhat fickleness of “city support,” the Board of Trustees voted twice to reject the option, then decided to look into increasing the income from our out-of-town users. After much study and many meetings and discussions, we decided to change our funding “formula” from per-cardholder to per-capita. Both Manager Cole and Councilor Blanchette signed the letter that was sent to the outlying towns with the new requests, therefore we believed that we were moving in the right direction.
- Our schedule for the rollout of this new formula was determined by the requests of individual town boards, as they start to put their budgets together (starts about November/December). This change was scheduled be effective in our FY21 budget (July 1, 2020). Normally we would send trustees to town meetings and/or budget committee meetings to present our request and answer any questions from the citizens.
- Councilors Hamilton and Phillips attended our Dec 17 meeting and at that time, informed us that unless we made reductions to our budget request (which wasn’t finalized at that time) that they could foresee a $100,000 deduction from our budget. We also discussed the changes we had made to our formula for out of town patrons at that meeting, and the fact that it would be at least two years before we would expect to see a lot of change, or whether the new program would work at all. Evidently, they weren’t listening.
- We listened. Working together with our library director, Amy Wisehart, we started with the flat funding budget as requested by City Hall, then were able to reduce our budget request by $37,000 plus put off some planned programs and the expense for same.
- Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled most (if not all) of those town meetings. In light of this, the trustees then discussed and voted to put off implementing the new funding model until next year. Given the situation at this time, we have since voted to move implementation up to Oct. 1 of this year.
- Just to clarify, our total FY21 budget request from the citizens of Ellsworth was $571,364. This is $25,000 less than last year, which was $23,400 less than FY19. The library also contributes over $100,000 of non-taxpayer funds toward our own operational expenses.
- One point that the City Council has not taken into consideration is the fact that in most months, we bring around 2,200 visitors to the downtown area. Summer normally will raise that number to between 5,000 and 6,000 patrons monthly. These are all potential shoppers for our merchants, especially in the Main Street business area. Two separate, independent surveys conducted about 10 years apart interviewed out-of-town users; about 1,900 to 2,300 of them indicated that when they came in from home or camp, they usually made a day of it, stopping at restaurants and doing their shopping as well as their library visit. Given the present conditions, I’m sure many businesses could use this boost of potential customers.
- It is our opinion that the City Council erred in the decision to cut such an extraordinary amount from our already pared budget, and should vote to reinstate the same amount to our FY21 budget request. If you are in agreement, please contact the councilors and support full funding of your library. Supposedly the final council vote will occur mid-July.
Ron Fortier is chairman of the Ellsworth Public Library Board of Trustees and this piece was signed by the board.