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County commissioners balk at closing library branches

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Budget cuts forcing tough decisions

By Emile Hallez

The Jefferson County Public Library presented its exhaustive zero-base budget last week to the county commissioners, making a case for funding that would help prevent branch closures but could deplete the system’s reserves in several years.

County officials, however, scoffed at the idea of allocating a budget that is ultimately unsustainable, urging library trustees to go back to the drawing board and further reduce expenditures. Regardless, the commissioners balked at the proposed closure of the library’s three smallest branches — the Conifer, Edgewater and Wheat Ridge locations — a controversial measure that could save up to $695,000 a year, in the event that the library’s budget is further reduced.

The library’s zero-base budget, which totals between $27,333,491 and $28,380,550, depending on whether all branches would reopen on Mondays, does not include any additional service cuts. However, the system’s more than $8 million in reserve funds would have to be expended by more than $2.8 million and $3.8 million, respectively.

In light of the zero-base budget, a blueprint of financial needs based on a thorough review that ignores the prior year’s budget, Commissioner Don Rosier questioned the library board’s consideration of the closures. He suggested reducing the library’s capital-improvement expenditures by half, a move that would delay and possibly increase building-repair costs in future years. But such a measure would free up enough cash to cover the costs of keeping the three branches open, he said.

“Would you rather do the capital-improvement maintenance in full … or keep libraries open? What’s more important?” Rosier said. “There’s costs associated with closing libraries. You have to move equipment out. You have to weather-seal.”

Library staff disputed the latter assertion, pointing to the fact that the three locations are leased, not owned.

But Conifer Library supporters made their own case at the Aug. 18 library board meeting, contending that only trivial savings would result from the closure.

Only about $200,000 a year would be saved from closing the Conifer branch, an amount too slim to make a tangible dent in the overall budget, for which millions of cuts are projected, supporters said.

“The Conifer Library represents less than 1 percent of the county library budget,” said Shirley Johnson, president of the Conifer Area Council and chairwoman of the Jeffco planning commission. “The Conifer Library is certainly the heart and soul of our community, and we ask that you not close it down.”

The library, located in Conifer High School and acting as the school’s own book collection, serves far too large a geographic area — 23 percent of the county — to be shut down, proponents of the library said. Further, Jeffco Public Schools is facing its own budget cuts, making replacement of the school’s library a financial nightmare, some said.

“We all know libraries are the hub of any school; they’re also the hub of our community. … Our kids access all the materials,” Conifer principal Mike Musick said. “We would be devastated if we lost our library. Imagine a $1 million collection … would be gone in one day.”

In the partnership with the school, the library system absorbs most the expenses. Nonetheless, students are required to use library cards and pay late fees, just as patrons do at any other branch. Thus, proponents said, students and faculty should be included in the library’s patron-traffic calculation, which apparently does not account for use during the school day.

“With the school day count, Conifer is at 5 percent of Jefferson County Public Library use,” Johnson said. “It’s an economic and smart use of public funds. … It has been an award-winning model for over 15 years.”

Further, the trips Conifer patrons would be forced to make to the Evergreen or Golden branches would be too inconvenient, some said.

“Contrary to popular belief, there are people in need in Conifer,” said Karen Verdier, health services director for the Mountain Resource Center. “A lot of people in our community are looking for work, and the only access they have to computers is at our public library. … Driving 30 miles to Golden just to do job searches is very difficult for our clients.”

However, the ongoing costs of keeping the libraries open exceed the one-time expenditures for capital improvements, administrative services director Paddy Correia said.

“The capital budget costs are for one year, and then boom, they’re done. … The operating cost for these three facilities go on and on and on. Where do we get the money for them in 2014, in 2015?” Correia said. “The library will run out of the spend-able portion of the (reserve) fund in three years or so. Something has to change.”

County Administrator Ralph Schell, who approved last year a budget that would have drained $600,000 from the library’s reserve to prevent the Monday closures, agreed, at least regarding a need for change. Though the county commissioners set the library’s mill levy allocation up to a maximum of 3.5 mills, the library board of trustees ultimately decides how and how much of the revenue is spent.

Even if the commissioners boosted the library’s mill levy allocation, a move that could direct an additional $1.4 million into the budget, the system would nonetheless continue to deplete its reserves without cuts in expenses, Schell said.

“That would still make your spending into your reserve over $2 million,” he said, noting that the increase might only delay the inevitable. “You might go under that line a little farther out.”

It was on that point that the trustees debated the need for a revision of the library’s requested budget — an amount based on mill-levy allocation and not the zero-base budget. The zero-base budget is a pilot program the commissioners initiated this year for the library and human services departments. By staff accounts, the pilot has involved hundreds of hours of work and has taken hours just to present to the commissioners.

Earlier this month the library submitted a budget request based on 3.425 mills, an amount substantially higher than the county’s current allocation of 3.225 mills. In 2010, the county redirected money from the library’s mill levy to the human services fund, a practice that may continue.

“The commissioners at this point aren’t telling us their problems or any solutions. … They’re nitpicking. They’re playing games. And quite frankly they don’t understand what we’re doing with the $24 million we use to run a library,” trustee T.J. Carney said at the Aug. 18 meeting, referring to the library’s projected revenue, not expenditures. “We were specifically prohibited from discussing mill levy and revenue sources. … It seems like a very extravagant expenditure … on a pilot project that appears to be uncomfortable for them, too.”

Other trustees urged cooperation, at least to a point, taking to heart the system’s obvious need for cuts.

“We need to decide how we’re going to be sustainable. … Maybe we need to cut more hours; I don’t know the answers,” trustee Ruth Anna said. “For us to maintain a budget in which our expenses don’t exceed our revenue, we really need to talk about that. … We need to be as respectful as we can with our county commissioners. But at some point, I may lose it.”

Regarding the mill levy, Rosier, who noted that the zero-base budget was valuable, said in a separate interview he did not yet know if the allocation would fluctuate. The county had yet to compare the individual budgets submitted by each department, he said.

“We’ll have to bring all those budgets together … and then look at the overall mill levy,” Rosier said. “I can’t say if it’s going to stay where it is or go up or down.”

And despite the proposed capital-improvements cut, suggesting expenditure reductions is the prerogative of the library board, not the commissioners, he said.

Indeed, allocations aside, the library board will decide the fate of the three smallest libraries, part of a point Carney underscored.

“The end of all this is the county telling us the amount of money that we’re allowed to spend, and we’re going to have to figure out how to spend it,” he said.

 

Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.