In 1996 I had the honor of being appointed to serve on the Chapel Hill Public Library Board of Trustees and later was reappointed to a second term. During my tenure, I also served as the Board’s chair. In addition to our normal responsibilities, we also began the planning for expanding the library since our’s was already too small for our need the day the doors opened (but that’s another story for later!). One of the more vexing issues on our agenda was funding support by Orange County, and guess what? It’s still a vexing issue.
I’m repeatedly asked why we just don’t solve “the problem” by merging the two libraries. To understand our situation we have to know our history. Prior to 1958 citizens used the University Library or drove to Hillsborough. A study by the Community Council, an organization of more than 60 local organizations concerned about local library resources, recommended to our Board of Aldermen (now called the Town Council) that Chapel Hill establish its own library.
When we started the library in 1958, we did it knowing that Chapel Hill citizens had to foot the bill. The evidence was there that citizens thought a library was important enough to warrant additional taxes to pay for it. Knowing that libraries are a county function and not believing that Orange County provided the service that Chapel Hill citizens demanded, the town-funded facility opened at 115 W. Franklin Street. It took little time to realize we needed more space, so in 1965 voters approved a bond to construct the facility at 523 E. Franklin Street.
Note that it wasn’t until 1976 that our library became an official town department. Another bond process (I’ll fast forward past all of that drama!) eventually led to the opening of the present facility in May 1994. Understand that through all of its history, the citizens of Chapel Hill pretty much funded our library. The State added some support to us as a municipal facility, but the lion’s share of state library money goes to the counties.
Orange County recognized that citizens living in southern Orange County who were not Chapel Hill taxpayers had no convenient library service; hence, they provided Chapel Hill with offset funding. Chapel Hill accepted the money knowing that North Carolina law required that we provide full access to any Orange County citizen if we accepted Orange County dollars. Fair enough.
Never did I ever hear anyone suggest that it fully covered our costs. As the usage grew, the Board of Trustees went to the Town Council each budget season and got permission to speak to the Orange County Commissioners about the gap in funding. The Commissioners provided $143,000 in 1994 and that grew to the current sum of $250,000. The Commissioners acknowledged that the money didn’t cover the level of usage, but they said that money was tight. Some may not be aware but the County Commissioners had voice and vote on the Chapel Hill Library Board, and their appointed representative kept them informed of the growing problem.
We are still at $250,000. Even if the amount grows, it still won’t cover the cost to Chapel Hill to support non-taxpaying users. On Monday, June 13th, the Town Council debated the options, including charging Orange County citizens who are not Chapel Hill taxpayers the current fee of $60.00. Note that residents of Durham, Wake, Chatham, and Alamance counties already pay this fee. Let’s treat all non-taxpayers the same!
As I see it there several issues on the table. First, merger is not a viable option as Orange County just doesn’t have the over $3 million a year to fund the operation of our library. We have said repeatedly that we want our own library and not be a branch of the County system. Second, if we charge a fee and don’t accept Orange County support, we will most likely have a shortfall in funds. We can adjust our spending to absorb some of the lost and the Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation has offered to help. Third, even if we have fewer users who are not Chapel Hill taxpayers, our own population will continue to grow and will use our expanded facility.
Now is the right time to make the change. We do not need to accept County dollars, and especially dollars with strings, as some of the Commissioners desire. For those in Southern Orange who still want to use the Chapel Hill Public Library but can’t afford the fee, here’s an idea: the County can contribute to the Chapel Hill Library Foundation who can then purchase the access cards. This way, the Town of Chapel Hill is no longer accepting County dollars.
County study after study has demonstrated the need to solve the gap in services. A larger facility in Carrboro will go a long way towards helping to solve the problem, but Orange County should no longer expect Chapel Hill taxpayers to subsidize the gap that they have in providing library services to their citizens. Enough is enough!
PS: Remember, almost all of us Chapel Hill taxpayers are also Orange County taxpayers!
That’s what I think, what are your thoughts?