Library supporters speak volumes about keeping reference librarian position
Rockland — During the June 4 budget meeting, Rockland City Councilors set the city's $10.52 million, 2014-2015 general fund budget into place for final approval June 30.
Before they did so, numerous Rockland Public Library supporters spoke at the urging of library Director Amy Levine to keep a position they consider critical to the library's well being.
Just after 10 p.m., well after the public comment had ended, councilors voted to keep the reference librarian position, at a cost of $55,000. More than half of the cost will be paid by raising some library fees and cutting some costs as proposed by Levine. The other portion will come by raising the property tax rate by 4 and-a-half cents per assessed valuation, acting City Manager Thomas Luttrell said. It will raise the average Rockland homeowners' property taxes by $8.46.
At the beginning of the budget meeting, the Rockland City Hall's back parking lot was full with an overflow of people parked along the road into the lot, nearly all of them in support of the library being permitted to keep its reference librarian position. A large number spoke during public comments on the matter. Many held yellow sheets of paper, emphasizing "We love our library."
"The library is the brains of the community, but also the heart of the community and the collective memory of the community," said Eleanor Richardson, secretary of the Rockland Historical Society. The library hosts many of the Historical Society's events, so taking away an important full-time position will impact the organization, she added.
The evening's first library supporter, Phyllis Merriam, also agreed that the Rockland Public Library "is the cultural and educational heart of the community, as recognized by by [Andrew] Carnegie, who gave to many libraries across the country including our own."
Self-described "taxpayer and psychotherapist" Inna Bedvarodkov, an instructor at the University of Maine, said having a reference librarian has been an amazing asset for her and her students. She has been visiting the Rockland Public Library for 17 years.
"Libraries help students to go to college, and not to jail," Bedvarodkov said, adding, "please don't take opportunities away from our children."
One speaker said taking away the reference librarian would be like the city administration office taking away Stuart Sylvester, Rockland city clerk. Another said more than 12,000 people have benefited from library programs thanks to its present staff.
"I think the library may be at a tipping point," said resident Joan Smith. She urged city councilors "to bask" in the success of the library, and enjoy the fruits of one of the city's most successful entities. "The tenor of the building is always peaceful."
In late May, Levine took to the library's website and urged library supporters to attend the budget meeting to ask that the full-time reference librarian position be kept intact. The position was set to be unfilled in the preliminary budget proposed by Luttrell. He has said that the reference librarian position, assistant city manager, and fire chief positions need to remain unfilled to keep a zero-based budget in place that does not raise property taxes.
But Levine said in her online message that the library will be hard-pressed to handle the loss of another full-time position within two years and still keep library services at their present levels. Last year, the City Council permanently removed a full-time library technician/adult programming position, she said.
During Wednesday's budget meeting, Levine said she knows the City Council has the authority to place a position back in the budget when proposed for removal. "I urge you from the bottom of my heart to do so," she said. She emphasized that the library's return on investment to the public — once all of its benefits are calculated — is more than $20 for every dollar spent.
Levine urged councilors not to diminish a library by subjecting it "to a death by a thousand cuts" when it does its best to handle 14,000 reference questions on a yearly basis.
Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf asked how much adults pay for library cards. For a year, the cost is $25, Levine said.
"There is no household that will be more disrupted [by the proposed cut] than my own, " Councilor Frank Isganitis said. He asked about the amount that Friends of the Library give each year. Levine said the friends group already does as much as it can do, which has included making contributions including a computer purchase for the library.
Before Wednesday's budget meeting, Mayor Larry Pritchett sent a notice to the area press, saying Levine's assertion that two full-time library positions will have been eliminated within two years "did not match my memory nor my notes."
"Last July, in response to cuts in revenue sharing the city reduced a 37 hour-per-week 'full-time' library position to a 20 hour-per-week 'part-time' position [the city completely eliminated positions at EMS, Fire, and Police at that time]," Pritchett wrote. "So in terms of staffing levels the reduction last year was 17 hours per week [37 hours down to 20 hours]. It may be worth noting that a 20 hour-per-week, part-time position costs the city about $13,000 to $14,000 per year whereas a 37 hour-per-week, full-time position costs the city roughly $55,000."
The most recent full-time reference librarian, Dan O'Connor, resigned in February, Levine said. The position has been filled on a part-time basis, but that part-time help expires at the end of the month and current-year budget.The full-time technician/adult programmer position eliminated was held by Steve Donoso, she said.
Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson asked more than once for points of order from her fellow councilors to keep the topic focused on the library budget. She said Levine's proposal to keep $55,000 for the position — with $31,000 of it coming by raising non-resident library card fees; reducing book purchases; raising sheet-copied cost from 10 to 15 cents; a one-time $15,000 bequest; reducing travel, library supply, and miscellaneous costs; and other means — should be discussed.
Councilor Eric Hebert said that so many people coming out to support the library "shows a broad level of support." But he said he was "uncomfortable" using a one-time bequest to help fund the position. MacLellan-Ruf disagreed, saying many public libraries rely on private contributions as part of their budgets.
Courier Publications reporter Larry Di Giovanni can be reached at 594-4401 x. 117, or by email at: email@example.com.