Could South Coastal Library become independent?

The South Coastal Library in Bethany Beach is one of the county’s oldest and most popular libraries. It enjoys tremendous support from a dedicated Friends of the South Coastal Library group and the community at large, and a combination of that community support and county funding recently saw the library re-opened at twice its prior size. Now, some are suggesting it could be time for the library to step out on its own, away from the county library system and much of the financial support of Sussex County taxpayers.

“There have been those who have felt that it would make a very nice private library,” County Librarian Carol Fitzgerald acknowledged during discussion of her report on the library system to Sussex County Council members at the council’s Oct. 13 meeting.

“I might be one of those,” replied Council President Vance Phillips, who noted that there had been “discussion in some circles about South Coastal becoming an independent library. They have a very vibrant Friends of the South Coastal Library group,” he emphasized.

FOSCL, in fact, pledged to cover a significant portion of the cost of the library’s recent multi-million-dollar renovations, raising about $2.5 million of the estimated final cost of around $5.2 million for the project and offering to pay the full additional cost to build a larger-than-planned meeting room that has already hosted meetings of a variety of local groups, including the meet-the-candidates night held by the Bethany Beach Landowners Association in September.

That kind of fundraising power and community support has now made the newly renovated library a target for potential cost-cutting in the county library budget, however, as the county looks to improve services at the other 13 libraries it funds. Those include 11 local, independent libraries and the three county-operated libraries – the latter group including the South Coastal Library.

The 11 independent libraries operate with a combination of about $1.95 million in combined county funding each year, plus funding from Friends groups, community donations and other grants. The three county-operated libraries operate on $2.5 million in combined county funding – some of which is used for general administrative costs for services that cover all 14 libraries – plus the support of their own friends groups, community donations and grants.

All 14 libraries receive services from the county library board, which does all their auditing, delivery of materials, training and education assistance, literacy programs, computer technical services (serving 400 PCs throughout the 14 libraries), Bookmobile services and cataloguing of books. The funding for that work is part of the $2.5 million figure.

Phillips suggested on Tuesday that the issue in considering the South Coastal Library possibly becoming an independent library isn’t one of cutting county budget costs overall, but rather of fairness to the other libraries and their areas of service.

“It’s more about equity, actually,” he said. “This is not about us as a county saving money. If there was an extra $400,000 that could be distributed to the other county libraries, they could maybe start providing a little better. It’s an issue of equity,” he repeated.

That $400,000 is the difference between what the South Coastal Library gets from the county each year for operating costs as a county-operated library, versus what it might get from the county as an independent library. It does not include the capital costs the county shares when capital projects take place.

South Coastal one of two original county libraries

According to Fitzgerald, some of the libraries in Sussex date back to the late 1800s, when the early libraries in Milton and Milford were created. She said many were formed by local literary societies and women’s clubs – some with a small collection of members’ own books that they would share with each other.

In 1973, a committee was formed to study the possible establishment of a county library system, and under a state mandate, libraries were asked in 1975 to declare whether they wanted to become county-operated libraries or remain independent through an exemption. Fitzgerald said most New Castle County libraries opted to become county libraries, while, in Sussex, most elected to remain independent, requesting that exemption.

The South Coastal Library, along with one in Greenwood, was one of just two libraries in Sussex that opted to become county-operated. It, and Greenwood, had previously been what Fitzgerald described as “very busy Bookmobile stops.” The new county libraries were initially established in modular buildings or trailers, using federal funding for construction and with the hosting towns providing the land for them to sit on. The county government provided the staff and owned all the property except the land at the end of two years.

“They were very successful, very busy,” Fitzgerald said on Tuesday.

A third county library, in Milton, was opened in 1980, as part of a county-funded priority list aimed at serving areas in the greatest need of a library. Discussions at the time suggested that additional areas might get their own county-operated libraries in future years, according to Fitzgerald.

“It appears that one of the ideas when they developed that facilities list was to take each library and develop it into a decent library, and then the next library they would take and would develop it, and it would become a county library,” she explained. “Frankford was the next library on the list. But there had been an opposition expressed from the State that they could get a modular building like Bethany and Greenwood, and they said no, and that seemed to have dropped any further discussion.”

Instead, all the other Sussex libraries have remained independent to this day.

Funding cuts hit busy libraries, staff

For capital projects at the libraries, the State of Delaware pays 50 percent of capital costs, and the county and Friends groups share the remaining portion. At the independent libraries, capital projects are funded with no county or state contribution. Instead, the libraries typically raise money through foundations, Friends groups and contributions from the community.

“The Friends of the South Coastal Library has been very effective in raising money toward capital costs,” Fitzgerald noted.

Regular operational funding for the libraries that comes from Sussex County is now collected through a 4.66 percent library tax, a capitation tax and a 1 percent mobile home placement fee on the sale of manufactured homes.

The independent libraries were initially funded solely through the library tax, which came to about $618,000 total in 1993. That was the year that the county took steps to increase library funding in response to requests from the local libraries. The capitation tax and mobile home placement fee were the result, increasing library funding by 200 percent between 1993 and 2009, and 29 percent in just the last six years.

The county cut its library budget in 2009, reducing it by 7 percent overall, to $4.3 million for the year. The county-operated libraries took the brunt of that cut, with funding down 14 percent compared to 2008, while the independent libraries’ county-provided financing was cut by 1 percent.

County Administrator David Baker noted on Tuesday that the county-managed libraries are more expensive to operate than the independent libraries. The county libraries go through a budget request process each time the county prepares its budget, so their costs are reviewed annually. He said the independent libraries cost less to operated, too, because they offer lesser benefits for employees.

“They are also very short-staffed,” said Fitzgerald.

In contrast to the county budget cuts, Fitzgerald said the libraries’ assets and services have only increased over time. In 1999, the libraries – both county-operated and independent – housed 860,000 items. Now, that’s up to 1.3 million items.

She provided photos of activity at the South Coastal Library on Friday, Oct. 9, to give council members a visual idea of how popular the library is on a regular basis. The photos were taken by library staff at the time Fitzgerald called to ask them to shoot the photos, she noted, and were not arranged to depict more than the actual activity at that time.

“These are very busy places. They all are,” she told council members on Tuesday.

And that demand is only getting stronger.

“We are finding now, in this economy, that more people are using the libraries to prepare their résumés,” explained Fitzgerald. “Many businesses are now requiring applications to be filed online,” she noted, while the libraries also offer educational and book discussion programs for adults and consumer health librarians funded by tobacco settlement money. “Because entertainment becomes expensive, having materials available that are of an entertainment or leisure nature, they become very popular,” she added.

Some council members expressed skepticism on Tuesday about the apparent popularity of the libraries across all of the county’s population.

“I don’t think the percentage is 10 percent of people using the libraries,” said Councilman Sam Wilson.

“It is a higher percentage than you think,” countered Fitzgerald.

“I hear all these comments made all the time, ‘Who’s using the libraries?’” replied Wilson. “It’s like a social club.”

“When the Georgetown library opens, you just watch, you watch and see all the people who will use that space,” responded Fitzgerald. “Many communities do not have any kind of meeting rooms,” she noted.

Cole champions county-operated South Coastal Library

The South Coastal Library’s role as a county-operated library had at least one strong supporter in council discussion of the issue on Oct. 13.

“I think it’s an asset that the county has, and we need to maintain our assets,” said Councilman George Cole, who has the Bethany area as part of his district. “If we were in dire straits, I could see talking about it,” he said of the idea of making the library an independent one should the county be desperate for the savings cutting the library free could bring.

But Cole said he knows that many of his constituents will object to the notion.

“We’ve got a move here to maybe sell off some of these libraries, and the last time we talked about this, we had a full house,” he noted. “We take a lead with a lot of these counties in technology and credentials [of staff]. If we’re talking about getting rid of one library, we should talk about getting rid of them all,” he added.

Wilson disagreed, again referencing the issue of equity.

“Why should we pay your library staff a big salary and this guy over here not?” he asked. “I can see why you’re the stickler here, because you want to protect the people here who vote for you,” he asserted.

“Do the local independent libraries want to be local independent libraries?” Councilman Michael Vincent asked Fitzgerald.

“Typically, they do,” she said, “though a number of them over the years have talked about becoming county libraries.”

Cole said he believed there would concerns about who controls the libraries.

“We addressed the lack of funds. We found permanent sources of funding,” he emphasized. “I guarantee you Seaford doesn’t want their library controlled in Georgetown. We had the funds. The small towns didn’t. We have come up with the mechanism to give them a funding stream. I haven’t had anyone come to me and say they want to become a county library,” Cole added.

Cole also emphasized the role of the county libraries as an asset beyond the small towns they call home.

“South Coastal became the regional library,” he said. “They’re coming from Fenwick. They’re coming from Millville. They’re coming from Ocean View. With the retired population there, they’re really using it.

“A lot of those small local libraries don’t have the resources to do those things,” he said of integrated computer networks and other features offered at the county libraries. “When you start talking about these things at public libraries, people get very interested. … They are used. Clubs use them. Social events are going in there. If we have emergencies, especially at South Coastal, we can use them. We took our council meeting to different parts of the county and we used school auditoriums and we used South Coastal,” he noted.

Fitzgerald also pointed to concerns about how a change to becoming an independent library might affect services at the South Coastal Library.

“Transferring assets to FOSCL would not change the way it would operate,” Phillips asserted.

“It depends on whether they agreed to operate by the same rules,” Fitzgerald replied.

Also at the Oct. 13 Sussex County Council meeting:

• The council voted unanimously to approve the issuance of up to $7.5 million in general obligation bonds to complete payment on an expansion of the South Coastal Wastewater Treatment Facility that was completed in 2006 and 2007 and increased capacity of the treatment facility by 50 percent, carrying it beyond near-capacity and opening it up to new users. County Engineer Mike Izzo said, “If we hadn’t done it, we would have violated the permit on the old plant, and we eliminated a lot of septic systems by bringing on Ocean View, Cedar Neck and now Johnson’s Corner.”

• The council also voted unanimously to approve the preparation and posting of notices for the Phillips annexation to the South Bethany Sanitary Sewer District, which would include two portions of two parcels contiguous to the existing district, for two single-family homes, and a small portion of a third parcel, to clean up the boundary lines of a development already in the district. A public hearing is set for Dec. 1.