Funding always an issue for state's public libraries - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Funding always an issue for state's public libraries

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Cathy Ash walks up the creaky steps and points to four doors, each leading to separate rooms the Doddridge County Public Library rents to community organizations and businesses.

One room is rented by Anterno Oil and Gas, just one of several oil and natural gas companies with a footprint in Doddridge County. 

Since the oil and gas boom began in earnest a few years ago, several county agencies, including the public library, have seen a bump in revenue. 

"It's our bread and butter," said Ash, director of the Doddridge County Public Library system. 

The West Virginia Library Commission is working to implement a rule that requires local government to match, dollar for dollar, funding from the Library Commission. For some counties with a large economic base, matching those funds might come easily. But for others, it poses yet another challenge. 

Rule change

The local funding rule requested by the Library Commission passed the Legislature in 2007, but the commission delayed implementing the match portion of the rule for three years.  

"We had a hard time convincing them of this because we never enforced it much, but they had to have two-thirds of the money (under the previous rule)," said Karen Goff, secretary of the Library Commission. "It was actually a reduction in the requirement, except we were going to enforce it. We handed out waivers like candy. And we said we're not going to do that. That was one of the hardest things to convince them of was we were not going to hand out waivers just because they couldn't meet the match." 

The Library Commission exists to offer support, advice and assistance to all of the state's libraries. But it can only offer financial assistance to public libraries. Money for those grants and aid come from the Legislature, which Goff said is feeling a little tapped out.

"The Legislature had told us, we would go ask for increased funding for grants and aid, and they said West Virginia is seventh in the nation in state aid to public libraries, and at one point I think we were fifth. And we are 49th in local support to public libraries," Goff said. "The state said we feel we've done our part. Until the locals do their part, we don't see any increase coming."

So the Library Commission developed a formula to determine how much funding libraries would receive. In 2012, libraries across the state had access to $5 for each person in the library's service population. So for a service population of 5,000 people, the library could get $25,000. But, the catch is, local government must now match that amount.

"They need to match that to get the whole thing," Goff said. "Half of that match has to be public money. It can't be bake sale money. It can't be endowment money. It has to be government, tax-based money, which means it has to come from the county, board of education or municipality or all three — hopefully all three."

Goff said the commission anticipated about 30 libraries across the state would have trouble meeting the match requirement. But once the rule was implemented, between 10 and 20 libraries actually had difficulty. Between 2000 and 2010, local contribution to the library systems has increased. But that didn't move West Virginia up from 49th in the nation in local funding.

Local funding

Thanks to Marcellus Shale and increased activity in the northern parts of West Virginia, many smaller counties are seeing more money in their coffers. The library in Doddridge County is no exception.

"I think last year we got $159,000 from our levy," Ash said. "This is the biggest budget year we've ever had."

In addition, the library gets $2,000 from the board of education and received about $38,000 last year from the state. With the bump in revenue, Ash has been able to renovate and remodel parts of the West Union branch, housed in a historic opera house. But that doesn't mean she's not worried about the future.

"Whenever oil and gas drops, we're going to drop too," she said.

So how does she stay ahead of that curve?

"We're conservative," she said. "We watch what we do."

And librarians in other parts of the state say they budget conservatively as well.

"We've gotten into a routine of being very conservative when we create our budget," said Vicky Terry, director of the Pocahontas County Library system. "I'm running five libraries. Not counting myself, I only have eight employees, so my Durbin library and Linwood library are one-person branches and the others are two-people branches. So I really don't have a lot of staff to cut, actually. We've been fortunate that we've had a couple of good years as far as funding and we've not had to worry about that."

Pocahontas County libraries receive about $20,000 from the county commission. That money is guaranteed. But anything else is extra, including money from tourism.

"The county commission some years back decided that one of the ways they can also support the library is to include us in the hotel/motel tax monies we pull in," Terry said. "Tourism is a big trade here in Pocahontas County, so we get a fair amount of hotel/motel tax money and the library is included in that. Every year, we will get funding from that as well. Of course, you never know what that is going to be, which makes our budget process difficult."

And like other librarians, Terry said her biggest concern as a director is the budget. Pocahontas County is sparsely populated, so relying on local funding may not be in the library's best interest.

"We never know for sure how much money we're going to have," she said. "I know this past year the Legislature was examining a bill that would create some stable funding for libraries, but it didn't go through. I think that's a good step. I think we need to try and work on something. We've got roughly, in this county, nine people per square mile. There's just not very many people here. We don't have a levy. We just hope that it's a good tourism year and go from there."

And small libraries aren't the only ones to benefit from local funding. Brian Ratiz, director of the Wood County Public Library system, said that even though the Wood County system is among the largest in the state, it, too, heavily depends on local funding.

"In West Virginia, I'm one of the largest public libraries in the state," he said. "But 14 other counties have better local funding than we do. There are 13 or 14 other libraries ahead of us in funding per capita, and I'm the third largest county in the state. With our excess levy, that knocks up to eight. There are still seven libraries ahead of us."

Wood County is one of 11 special law libraries established by the Legislature in 1957 that requires the boards of education, county commissions and other entities to help fund the local library. But the law varies by county, so there is no baseline of funding available for county library systems under the law.

"What people don't realize is those 11 special law libraries, each one is written differently," Raitz said. "You can go through some of these libraries and see my levy rate is not the same as Cabell County or Kanawha County. It's not the same as Ohio County or Harrison County. Some of those counties are getting more money."

Raitz cited neighboring Wirt County, home to one library and fewer than 6,000 people. That library is funded by the Wirt County Board of Education.

"Little Wirt County, one of the smallest counties in the states, their board of education passed an excess levy that funds their library," Raitz said. "They've got one of the highest per capita funding in the state. But of course they're so small that they still don't have hardly any money to operate on. 

"They only have 5,000 or 6,000 people in the county and can only tax so much. But they fund their library."

Many libraries across the state rely on excess levies to fund their operations. But that, too, presents a challenge because many people don't understand what they're voting for, Ash said.

"They have to vote and it has to pass by 60 percent," Ash said. "Its not the majority at 50; it has to be 60. We're very fortunate that our voters pass it here. In other counties, it can't pass."

Ash said the library levy used to be voted on every three years, but it was recently changed to every four years to coincide with the general election and so the library wouldn't have to pay for a special election. But changing the frequency of the levy vote has its pros and cons, Ash said.

"We thought it was ridiculous to have to ask for a levy then turn around and have to pay," she said. "We go on with the primary election every four years and we don't have to pay anything. There is a bigger turnout, but we've noticed our numbers have gone down. We used to pass our levy 87 percent, 92 percent. It's always been up there. But the last two times we've passed it, it's been 61 percent."

Hanging in the balance

Although many libraries depend on their boards of education and other county-level government entities for funding, that could change. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that in Kanawha County, the board of education does not have to divert a portion of its regular or excess levy revenue to the Kanawha County Public Library. 

Kanawha County is one of 11 special law libraries, and the board of education, county commission and city of Charleston are responsible for part of the library system's funding. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, the board of education paid more than $2 million in regular levy taxes to the library. The funding is about 1 percent of the board of education's budget, but 40 percent of the library's budget.

The decision could have ramifications for library systems that derive a portion of funding from local school boards. And that, in turn, could affect the quality of operations.

"I remember a couple of years ago, we had a $20,000 shortfall between what we anticipated and what came in and we had to cut our book budget and had to make some other cuts in operating costs," Terry said. "We had to cut hours. We're not open on the weekends right now. It does make it difficult. You have to trim that wherever you can. It's a hard decision no matter what."

But while the budget may become a bigger issue in the future, some libraries are finding they have to expand.

"We're in a little bit of a strange situation funding-wise in that over the past three years, our local funding had been staying stable, but decreasing a little bit," Raitz said. "With inflation going up, we were having to make cuts, so we were cutting back on our collection. But this fall, we passed an excess levy to build and operate a new branch on the south side. That's increasing our revenue so my collection will go up this next fiscal year."

And even though funding might be an issue, people are still rallying around the local library.

"When I moved here, I was really impressed because this library is so new," Terry said. 

"I was asking about it and was told the library in Marlinton was completely destroyed in a big flood in 1996. I was not here at that time, but everything was lost. This building was built in 2000 and opened in 2001. So within five years, they had a brand new library. That impressed me. It impressed me that the people in this area really valued libraries and wanted a library back."

Goff said many of the state's librarians are elderly simply because they can't afford to retire. Each library has a board of five trustees who invest time and sometimes money into improving the library. However, Goff pointed out, sometimes those trustees don't know a lot about libraries.

"We have trustees who have been trustees for 30 years," she said. "One of our librarians has told me that in a lot of communities … if it wasn't for them, nobody in the community would be invested in making sure the library existed if it wasn't for those five people willing to do it. We have trustees who paint walls and wire elevators and do anything."

John Paul Myrick, library development director with the Library Commission, said in one community, a trustee keeps the library open the minimum number of hours because they can't afford to hire a librarian. 

"It always comes back to the funding," Goff said. 



Note: In the print edition, an infographic on page 5 incorrectly listed Upshur County libraries as not getting any funding from the county board of education. The Charles W. Gibson branch does not receive money from the board, but the Upshur County Public Library does receive $81,700.