The Blount County Public Library needs local governments to kick in an extra $372,676 or it could lose up to 10 employees and put library programs, services and operating hours in jeopardy — turning the library into a “building with books,” library officials said.
New salary obligations published in countywide study in late March recommended salaries be raised to the 70th percentile of the area local government labor market, forcing the library to ask for additional funding for salaries and benefits.
Lacking the requested money, the library may have to let employees go, cut programs and shave resources in areas like its book budget and communications technologies at its Cusick Street building, library Director K.C. Williams said.
Loss of manpower alone could spell far worse times for the library.
A decrease in part- and full-time staff would force the library’s operating hours to shrink, annulling a contract with the state and effectively cutting off the library from $2.5 million in funding, Williams said.
Now she and others are asking for an increased fiscal 2020 budget to meet the library’s needs and keep its hours regular. “In effect, we can’t absorb the hit with our operations budget that has been mandated by the county … with no increase,” Williams said in an interview.
Many of the library’s programs are funded through a Maintenance of Effort Agreement with the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, which provides $2.5 million provided the three local funding bodies — the cities of Alcoa and Maryville and Blount County — meet an agreed-upon funding amount each year.
In fiscal 2019, that amount was $2,192,566.
Though no funding cuts have been proposed, Williams said without a salary and benefits increases, the library cannot continue to keep all of its 50-plus staff members and may have to cut at least nine part-time staff members and one full-time staff member to meet the compensation study’s requirement.
With a depleted staff, library hours also would decrease and the MOE contract nullified.
A broken contract with the state could mean the loss of professional consulting assistance, access to grant funding for special projects and even a loss of state-owned books, DVDs and other library materials, the MOE terms state.
But issues with funding represent only part of the problem as the tri-government’s library funding agreement has reached its own crisis point yet again.
Each government currently contributes a set percentage to the library’s budget — Blount County 50%, Alcoa 10% and Maryville 40%.
But there is no official agreement setting these numbers in place.
A contract signed by Blount, Alcoa and Maryville leaders in 1968 shows each government agreeing to provide 50%, 20% and 30%, respectively. Though the library had a new draft from the early 1990s proposing the percentages be set to 50%, 10% and 40%, respectively, it was never signed, so the original percentages remain intact.
City officials are not sure when or why Alcoa decided to pay less and Maryville decided to pay more. But both Maryville City Manager Greg McClain and Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson agree that since Alcoa has 10% of library cards and Maryville 40% — the division makes sense.
But only to a degree.
“As Maryville citizens we’re paying 40%,” McClain told city officials in a May 10 budget retreat. “But then as Blount Countians, people in Maryville also put in 50%.” He later emphasized in an interview that Maryville has been giving money over its allotted 30% out of “generosity.”
What started as goodwill has become a financial and even philosophical conundrum, McClain said.
Now Maryville is looking to deal with the issue by finding common ground with Alcoa and the county.
The way some Maryville city leaders see it, there are two possible ways forward: renegotiate the contract or pay it the way it was written in 1968.
“I quite frankly don’t understand why Alcoa would have agreed to 20% back in those days unless there was some special circumstance,” Johnson said. “Alcoa’s never had that kind of population ratio to Maryville or Blount County.”
Both Johnson and McClain said there was room to potentially engage other cities in the funding process. Louisville, for instance, has more library card holders than Alcoa, but has not been a part of contract discussions so far, McClain said.
Though the issues with the library budget contract have been considered and tabled in past budget years, required salary increases are pushing a potential resolution.
“We’ve been kicking this can ahead so many years and I’m afraid it can’t be kicked any further,” Mayor Tom Taylor told officials.
Williams and library Board Trustees Chairwoman Susan Schneibel said the library board will weigh several strategic options at a meeting Thursday.
County officials have indicated the salary and benefits raises were non-negotiable, Williams said, but said she did not venture to ask what would happen if the library did not comply.
The county has indicated it can raise its MOE obligation by giving nearly $90,000 more, and Maryvillle has proposed an increased 2020 library and parks budget of nearly $40,000.
But that is still a fraction of the needed increase, which is nearly $373,000 annually.
Despite funds potentially falling short, the library continually has reached out to the community to measure support.
A self-study of just more than 2,000 patrons conducted last year by Robert McClelland, a former analyst, researcher and auditor, found services such as access to professional library staff, online services, reading areas, internet access and online databases were among the most important services the library provided.
The library also has reached out to the community through social media and emails to patrons, asking for their support as it seeks increased funding for fiscal 2020.
“The programs, services and hours of operations are in jeopardy,” a letter posted online read.
But Williams and Schneibel warned that a lack of funding may result in losses even more tangible than discontinued programs. “(The state) will pull a truck up here and they will take everything out of here that they’ve given us money for: computers, books, DVDs, everything,” Williams said.
“This library is a flagship library,” she told Maryville budget meeting attendees. “This cut will make it a building with books.”
Maryville and Alcoa city officials said they planned to give the matter further consideration this week.
Officials at the Blount County mayor’s office did not return The Daily Times request for comment.