The West Florida Public Library System is in what Bette Hooton calls “crisis mode.” The panic is due to the fact that the local library system stands to lose a bulk of its funding.
“I cannot tell you how frightened I am for this system,” said Hooton, president of the West Florida Library Board of Trustees.
Recently, a law passed at the state level which retroactively charges counties for what state officials say are shortfalls in Medicaid bills going back to 2001. This resulted in a nearly $10 million sucker punch to Escambia County’s budget.
“There are no easy answers,” said Escambia County Administrator Randy Oliver, explaining that the cut has to be made up somehow. “Difficult times require difficult solutions.”
In an effort to make up the hit dealt by the state—which totals about $9.6 million—Oliver is targeting the West Florida Library System. He has proposed that county commissioners look at pulling their $3.7 million worth of funding from the system.
“We’ve gotta cut something,” Oliver said. “And I’m open to any and all suggestions.”
Currently, Escambia County funds more than 70 percent of the library system’s budget. The city of Pensacola provides just under $2 million in funding.
“Obviously, it’s going to have an impact,” said Gene Fischer, director of the West Florida Library System. “That’s quite a cut to take.”
Pensacola City Administrator Bill Reynolds said that city officials are currently looking at the issue.
“We’re doing the necessary planning to see what life without the county might look like,” he said, adding that not all the libraries would be able to remain open.
County commissioners are being presented with a few different options to deal with the library funding. They could impose a 0.35 mill—a mill being $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value— levy on property in the unincorporated portions of Escambia County. This could be done by referendum, or the commissioners could simply impose the increase in property taxes.
The commissioners could also impose a user fee for residents living in the unincorporated areas of the county. Fischer called that concept “totally impractical.”
“To make up the difference we’d have to sell 17,000 library cards,” he said.
Escambia County Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson, however, said that the user fee sounds like a reasonable option, arguing that people would still be getting services—such as access to the Internet at library computer stations—for less than market value.
“Why should we be providing it absolutely free?” Wilson asked.
The Chairman compared the region’s public library system to the county-owned golf course, which charges a fee. He said that it is not government’s responsibility to provide citizens with the benefits of a public library system.
“You’re talking like a Democrat, I’m a Republican—nowhere in the Constitution does it say we have to provide computers,” Robertson said. “Government’s solely responsible for what’s in the Constitution. Government’s responsibility is not these things in my opinion.”
Fischer said that although a user fee would be less than the price of monthly Internet access, or buying new books from a bookstore, it would still be too high for many people.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “If you’ve got the money, it’s reasonable.”
Oliver said that he doesn’t know what option the commissioners might go with when they tackle the issue this week.
“You never handicap a horserace,” the county administrator said, adding that the commissioners would not be facing such a decision had the state not saddled the county with the Medicaid burden.
“I think it’s deplorable, I think it’s a fact of them not balancing their budget—didn’t want to, didn’t know how to,” Oliver said of state officials.
Reynolds said that cuts to the library would have community-wide ramifications. The city administrator called libraries the “great equalizer” and said closures would disproportionately affect lower income citizens.
“The community as a whole would suffer greatly,” Reynolds said. “It’s the place that you don’t have to buy a book, you can go in and check out a book, you don’t need to buy a computer, you can go in and use a computer.”
Oliver said that one way to assure the consequences didn’t befall the less fortunate would be to make up the shortfall by raising property taxes.
“They’ve always got the option to raise property taxes,” he said. “That usually targets the higher income.”
Chairman Robertson isn’t key on that possibility.
“I will not vote for a tax increase of any kind,” he said. “It’s just too bad of an economy. I’m not gonna do it.”
Library supporters are planning to show up en masse to the April 12 county commission meeting. They’ll be wearing red shirts and urging commissioners to find other solutions to the budget problems.
Hooton has already approached the county. She went to speak with Oliver after learning of the proposed cuts. Then she relayed the encounter as she attempted to rally support from the community.
“He was really very nice about it,” Hooton told a crowd gathered for an Escambia County Republicans event. “He said he had to pay his Medicaid bill and he was taking it from the library—it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The crowd—decidedly conservative—gasped at the notion of a stripped down library system. They seemed to sympathize with Hooton and the county’s 46,000 library cardholders.
“He said he didn’t really use the library, anyway, which made me cringe,” she continued relaying her encounter with Oliver. “We’re going to ask Mr. Oliver to find the money. Isn’t that his job?”
Chairman Robertson was also in attendance at the Republican gathering where Hooton made her case. The county commissioner asked for a chance at a “two-minute rebuttal.”
Distancing himself from the county administrator, Robertson attempted to quell any hard feelings the crowd might be formulating. He said the Commission was simply taking a look at options put before them.
“That’s a recommendation from Oliver and not the county commission,” the Chairman told Hooton and the crowd. “Please give us a chance to discuss it before you say the county commission is closing the libraries.”
Hooton shot back that Oliver had told her he “wanted to get out of the library business.”
“He’s speaking for himself,” Robertson said.
The Escambia County Commission will consider how to handle the county budget shortfall and library funding April 12. The meeting will be held at 9 a.m. at the county’s downtown complex.