Officials from the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office say Blount County Public Library’s looming employee and budget issues could cause the first program throttling of its kind in the state’s history.
Tennessee State Librarian and Archivist Charles Sherrill told The Daily Times situations like the one BCPL has found itself in — where a library is unable to meet its Maintenance of Effort agreement — are not normal.
“In the 70 years that the regional system has been operating, we have never had to cause a library to be excommunicated, so to speak,” Sherrill said, adding the state has had more than one MOE issue in the past, one of which came down to the wire, leading the state to take away books. But in every case, local governments and communities have come through, Sherrill said.
Blount’s agreement states the county must provide a certain amount of money for the library and the library must remain open a certain number of hours to retain state funding for programs.
“Most of the time when we have MOE problems, they result from funding (issues),” Sherrill said. “But this is an unusual one because the funding is not being decreased, but the library is being asked to pay its employees more.”
Sherrill said he applauds the effort to seek raises, but understands the threat of having to reduce service hours due to insufficient funding from the three governing bodies that fund the library’s budget. Maryville, Alcoa and Blount County still are processing 2020 budgets, trying to solve contract issues and addressing a deluge of community pleas to fix the financial problem.
But officials insist nothing is final until budgets pass.
Statements from library officials and board members have suggested the county has funded every other department except the library, but Blount’s Director of Accounts and Budgets Randy Vineyard did not respond to repeated attempts to verify this.
Budget committee member and County Commissioner Tom Stinnett said Vineyard is busy meeting with county commissioners over the budget and is reticent to answer any questions about the library because of the deluge of emails.
Commissioners and other city leaders have been receiving thousands of petition emails from concerned citizens asking for each funding body to do its part.
“We’re trying to work some things out,” Stinnett said. “But they’re defeating their own process because they’re making the funding body upset, me being one of them.”
Stinnett said he “did not know the answer” to whether the county had provided for all the other departments’ county-recommended raises. “The reason is,” he added, “I don’t know what Maryville is going to do. I don’t know what the county’s going to do.”
Sherrill confirmed a broken MOE agreement with the state could mean losing a total of around $70,000 in annual services and materials. The state also would remove books and other supplies, and with the domino effect, library Director K.C. Williams said total losses could reach $2.5 million in jettisoned programs and materials.
Sherrill confirmed there are standards for how to deal with a library that doesn’t meet MOE.
“Our process would be to first look at the inventory and determine which of the books and other (items) were bought with state funding,” he said. “We would then begin to take those materials to other libraries.”
Besides losing books, the library also would lose IT support, training, legal consulting and access to the R.E.A.D.S. audio and e-book program. Sherrill said these were the major damages a broken MOE would cause, but also pointed out the possibility of a kind of grace period.
“There is the possibility of a one-year waiver,” he said. “If every department was having to absorb ... costs in an equal way that the library is having to absorb them, then they could be eligible for the waiver. But in the waiver they would commit that in the next budget year they would be reinstating those lost hours.”
Williams said she would not be the one to negotiate such a waiver and that it would be up to the county to decide if the library will earn an extension.
“I think this is very unfortunate because the county is doing a good thing in providing better salaries for its employees,” Sherrill said. “However, the fact that may mean that other people have to be let go is a bad thing.”
With the potential of nearly 10 cuts to library staff, employees are nervous. The cuts would be necessitated because a county-hired consultant has recommended Blount raise all employee salaries to keep it competitive with other local governments.
Learning Commons Coordinator Ari Baker says that morale has been low and stress high inside the library walls over the past month. “I think there’s a lot of confusion and fear. When everyone hears ... people are going to lose their job, their immediate reaction is ‘it’s going to be me.’”
Baker said community support has been encouraging to employees but not reassuring. Raises required for library employees are not the same as other county departments, Baker noted. Because many full-time staff have master’s degrees, the pay hikes are steeper. Baker himself has a master of library and information science degree and is primarily involved in programs fostered by the MOE.
Though Baker stands to get a raise from the budgetary shift, he also would be pulled away from programs he’s committed years to, such as Blount County Recovery Court, collaboration with the Blount Chamber on workforce development needs, and the library’s work with cultural and historical programming.
“The stuff that I do is more like transformational work,” Baker said. He teaches four classes a week currently, but, absent part-time workers, he would have to fill in as a reference librarian. Without specialized or state-funded programming, his and others’ daily routines would vanish.
Now part of the staff faces a more financially bright future. The other part faces termination.
A solution in the cards?
Much of the county’s continuing debate over who funds what centers around patronage. A 1968 contract tallied populations of card holders and proposed a 20%, 30% and 50% funding obligation between the governments of Alcoa, Maryville and the county.
But numbers provided by Williams show more diversity in card users today.
Out of a total of 77,806 card users (adjusted for expired cards), 46,791 are from the county, more than 25,000 from Maryville, and more than 5,000 for Alcoa.
The library says that Louisville alone has just over 5,000 and is only a little fewer than 400 card users behind Alcoa.
“How come Louisville’s not involved?” Stinnett asked rhetorically. “Rockford? Townsend? Why aren’t they being asked to contribute?”
Commissioners and city leaders have balked at the creation of a new contract, but admit it has not been followed for years. Stinnett said budget finalization is too close to try and draw up another contract reflecting a more even share of the funding load.
Parties on state and local levels are waiting on finalized budgets to see where the unprecedented situation stands, but optimism is almost as thin as available funds in some circles.
“It’s a lot deeper than the library,” Stinnett said. “It’s every department. Everyone is scratching for every penny. It’s not just one issue.”