County threatens to reduce funding for library

August 23, 2018 11:05:52 AM

Zack Plair - [email protected]


Not one computer station sat open Wednesday afternoon in the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library on Seventh Street North. 


Patrons were quietly busy on the machines located near the entrance, some job hunting or filling out job applications, while others researched information for school projects, typed papers on Microsoft Word or simply browsed the internet. 


Others brought their own laptops or tablets to the library in need of Wi-Fi access they didn't have at home. 


Nearby, a woman browsed for a book to read while her son sat at a table toiling away at his homework. 


Wednesday's after-school crowd was standard fare for the local library, and served as a small sample of the more than 302,000 visitors expected to come through the system's Columbus, Crawford, Caledonia or Artesia locations this year. 


But upstairs in her office, Director Erin Busbea was crunching numbers, trying to determine how the library can best handle an all-but-inevitable $91,000 cut in local funding for operations next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. 


The library is precariously poised to be the next casualty of an ongoing feud between its two primary funding sources -- Columbus and Lowndes County. And it's a feud that, in just the past year, already has seen the county pull out of a joint parks and recreation agreement, the city withdraw from a longtime agreement for economic development services with the Golden Triangle Development LINK and a 2-percent tax to fund tourism expire without being renewed. 


If the feud ultimately does claim library funds, Busbea said, cuts in library services will follow. 


"We risk cutting hours, having to scale back on programs, resources or databases," Busbea said. "I just don't want the people of Columbus and Lowndes County to suffer from this because ultimately that's who will. I'd hate to see that happen." 




Un-level funding 


The city and county signed the current joint agreement to fund the library in 1995. From the outset, each entity provided 50 percent of the library's total request for operations money. 


Over the last 10 years, however, the county has given the library a combined $801,000 more than the city has provided. Since 2009, the county's annual contribution has risen from $324,989 to $365,000. The city's, in the same span, has gone from $250,000 to $273,500. 


County Administrator Ralph Billingsley, who compiled those figures in a document he shared with Busbea and The Dispatch, said over the years county supervisors have granted the library's requests for additional funding far more often than the city, which caused the once 50-50 funding to skew. 


Now, at least some supervisors are threatening to lower the county's contribution to the city's level, which would create a more than $91,000 hole in the library's budget if the city doesn't provide more funds. 


"The library does a tremendous service for the county," Supervisors President Harry Sanders told The Dispatch. "We aren't looking to defund them totally, but I think there might be a will on the board to lower the contribution to what the city pays because this agreement is supposed to be 50-50." 


Last week, after speaking with county officials, Busbea pleaded her case with the city council during a Thursday budget workshop. She asked either for the city to raise its contribution to the county's level of $365,000 or at least split the difference -- coming up nearly $46,000 and allowing the county to come down that amount so library funding would at least stay level. 


Her request, however, garnered no action, and discussion didn't track in Busbea's favor. 


Specifically, Ward 6 Bill Gavin noted nearly two-thirds of the county's roughly 60,000 live outside the city limits, indicating a rationale for the county to pay more for the library. Plus, he said, city residents pay both city and county property taxes. 


"Residents living in the city are essentially being taxed twice (for services like the library), and that's probably the reason for the funding disparity," Gavin said at last week's budget meeting. "I think that's something that needs to be said." 




An 'implied' 50-50 contract 


County officials argue, on the other hand, the partnership was designed to be 50-50, though they acknowledge the joint contract doesn't spell that out. 


In fact, the agreement that establishes joint funding for the library gives no specific metrics for funding responsibilities, instead saying the library may be supported by an annual tax levy the mayor and city council "may in its discretion from time to time establish and determine together with any contributions which the (Lowndes) Board of Supervisors ... may, in its discretion, make from any available funds ..." 


Sanders, along with Billingsley and County Attorney Tim Hudson, told The Dispatch they believe any "partnership" automatically implies 50-50 responsibilities unless it specifies otherwise. 


City officials, including Mayor Robert Smith, assert the county's position is incorrect. 


"Harry and some of the other supervisors just don't want to work with the city, and this is what it's all about," Smith said. "We want to do what's right (by the library) but we aren't going to let the county push us around. ... Why should we pay 50-50 at this present time?"  


Speaking to The Dispatch, attorney John R. Bradley, a professor emeritus of contract law at the University of Mississippi, said the county's claim of an implied 50-50 contract doesn't seem to hold up. 


All the contract establishes as it's written, he said, is a basic responsibility to fund the library. At what levels is "indeterminate." 


"There's no way to say the city or county has to pay more under that contract, in my opinion," Bradley said. 


The only other argument the county could make is through "established usage pattern" if the two entities had long paid 50-50 and the city had suddenly stopped. But since the two entities have provided different levels of funding for more than a decade, that argument for the county "becomes an issue," he said. 




'Librarians are resourceful and resilient' 


While Busbea awaits the fate of the local funding decision, her operation continues to buzz along. 


The library system staffs 13 full-time and four part-time employees. According to its 2017 annual report, it offered 607 free programs, including 565 for children and 40 computer classes for adults. 


Busbea said the library has more than 90,000 cataloged items -- including books and reference materials -- and local historians are regularly adding more Lowndes County and Golden Triangle primary source documents. 


State and federal funding has also been cut nearly in half for the local library, Busbea said, with federal funds reduced to grants for certain programs and direct state funding exclusively supplementing employee salaries and benefits. 


Busbea hopes to avert a local funding slash. But if it happens, she said Columbus-Lowndes Public Library will be OK. 


"I'm very optimistic the city and county will work something out," she said. "But if not, librarians are resourceful and resilient. We will continue on and we will keep fighting to provide the best service possible for Columbus and Lowndes County."

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.