August 21, 2014

Gwinnett, GA Faces Million Dollar Budget Cut

Forced to absorb a 33 percent drop—a cool $1 million—in their materials budget, Gwinnett County Public Library (GCPL), officials are already strategizing for FY 2014, figuring out ways to ration resources for a 15-branch network that continues to grow in usage.

On January 3, the Gwinnett County, GA, Board of Commissioners adopted a $1.46 billion budget for 2013, 7.1 percent lower than the previous year, citing shrinking property tax revenues. GCPL took a substantial hit; the final budget allocates $2 million for library materials, down from $3 million a year ago.

The Gwinnett County budget was unveiled in late November 2012. Public comments on the county’s proposed budget were heard on December 10, at which time Phillip Saxton, chairman of the library board of trustees at the time, submitted a letter asking commissioners to reconsider the reduction.

“The last time the library a had $2 million materials budget to serve Gwinnett citizens was in 2001, when it served a population of 564,398 and staffed ten branches,” wrote Saxton. “Population has increased 42 percent since that time, and there are 50 percent more branches.” Saxton’s letter also said Gwinnett County Public Library boasts the highest usage rate in the state.

Located about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, Gwinnett County more than doubled in population between 1990 and 2010, when some 805,000 residents were counted in the latest census. In that span, the library system (named LJ’s Library of the Year in 2000) added branches and users, and now boasts about 310,000 cardholders, according to data from FY 2012, when patrons logged about three million visits spread across its 15 branches.

Out of the Blue

“We were not expecting it,” Nancy Stanbery-Kellam, the library’s executive director, told LJ. “We went through the budget process as established by the county. While the meetings were an excellent opportunity to have a direct dialogue, this cut was not discussed. The library also participated in quarterly efficiency reviews conducted by the county. We received very positive reviews, which compounded the surprise.”

Stanbery-Kellam described her budget cut as “devastating,” adding, “The specifics are under discussion.” She listed a series of possible effects on services, including:

  • Increased wait time by library patrons for materials.
  • Reduced circulation times for books, CDs, etc.
  • Slower growth for digital media collections, such as ebooks, streaming videos, and e-audio formats.
  • Loss of volume discounts with vendors, due to likely changes in “vendor relationships.”

While this one may have come as a shock, budget cuts are nothing new for GCPL. According to its data, overall county funding has decreased every year since 2009 from a high of $18.9 million in 2010 to about $14.1 million for FV14.

The County in a Crunch

Charlotte Nash, chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, said other departments (parks and recreation, for one, along with a hiring freeze for the police and fire departments) absorbed budget cuts without nearly as much publicity as the library’s plight received.

“I love the library,” Nash told LJ in a phone interview on Tuesday. “This is not an easy decision for me.”

Under state law, Gwinnett County is required to pass a balanced budget, which Nash said was one reason why increased usage was not enough to spare GCPL from cuts. “Service demands for many parts of the local government go up in a down economy,” she added. “We are in that vice. We had to look at ways we could balance out what we were doing. It’s a hard, hard situation to be in.”

Nash also said limiting the $1 million reduction to materials would allow GCPL to maintain current staffing levels and hours, the latter of which has seen cuts in recent years. “That’s our recommendation,” Nash said. “We requested that they take it from materials. I believe that will create the least disruption of services for them.”

Nash said the latest $1 million cut was unfortunate but necessary, and denies it signals the county’s lack of commitment to the libraries. “It’s a fantastic system,” she told LJ. “It’s amazing to see what happened from the mid-’80s to this point.”

GCPL’s board of trustees, through a spokesperson, declined LJ’s request for comment on the budget cut, instead emailing a copy of the December 10 letter.

After the county budget was passed, library board member Dick Goodman was quoted in an Atlanta newspaper as saying the cut was unfortunate, but “I’m confident the library administration will demonstrate that it has the will and the creative resources to deliver to the citizens of Gwinnett the level of library service they expect and deserve.”

Stanbery-Kellam, however, does not seem sure that will and creativity will be enough. She said, “My concern about libraries in general is that things are happening so swiftly, communities may not realize what is happening until it is too late,” she told LJ. “It may take years to rebuild in any kind of ‘business model’ that is responsive and relevant to the community. Change is always difficult and the future is always uncertain.”

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