LIBRARY POLITICS Pensacola and Escambia County are in a new spitting battle. The issue of public libraries is one that has plagued the community for decades. The city of Pensacola runs the system—and I use the word loosely—and the county has traditionally funded about 70 percent of the costs to operate it.
This year, Escambia County cut its library contribution by $165,000 from the previous year. The city responded to the shortfall by cutting operational hours, staffing, subscriptions and book purchases.
The branches in the rural areas took the brunt of the staff cuts, which didn’t sit well with County Administrator Randy Oliver. He wants to hire back the staff in the rural libraries and cut the county’s fund to transfer to the city by whatever that will cost. Oliver wants all library branches in the unincorporated areas be staffed at the same level as the branch in the city with the greatest operating hours.
We’ve been here before. In 2007, the Pensacola City Council and the county commission met for over three hours to discuss the Escambia County Area Transit (ECAT) and the West Florida Public Library system.
The city wanted the county to contribute about $498,000 to fund the library system. The county was asking the city to contribute $300,000 to fund ECAT.
Commissioner Mike Whitehead proposed the county swap the library system for ECAT, but city council wanted none of it. In the end, nothing happened, except the city later stopped its contributions to ECAT.
For some reason, this community has never been committed to public libraries. The first public library wasn’t built until 1957. For years, the West Florida Regional Library System was ranked at or near the bottom among the state’s library systems in amount per citizen spent on library materials and facilities, total square feet of library space and other categories.
A 1974 study said that the downtown Pensacola library was woeful. In 1990, another one concluded the library’s annual operating budget should be $20 per capita. And again in 2001, a study recommended about $43 million in capital improvements and the budget should be about $10 million annually to bring the system up to par by 2020.
The county and city have built more branches, but the funding hasn’t come anywhere near $10 million. The 2012-13 budget is $5.38 million.
So instead of a true commitment to public libraries, we have the system becoming a political football yet again. Is there any doubt why our illiteracy rates are so high and our kids’ FCAT reading scores are so low?