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Construction Is Almost Done, But New Library Services May Have To Wait

By Elizabeth Friend Posted January 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm
CHAPEL HILL-The new and improved Chapel Hill Public Library will reopen in the spring, but it’s not clear if the town can afford the full cost of operating the expanded facility.

Interim Library Director Mark Bayles told the town council on Wednesday that when the library reopens in April, it will be more than twice as large as before, spanning an acre and a half with nearly four miles worth of book shelves.

“The new building is, in essence, two libraries under one roof: the main library and a mini-branch,” said Bayles.

To run the 63,000 square foot facility at full capacity will cost an extra $433,000 this year and an additional three quarters of a million each year thereafter.

But the town budget is tight. Council members warned Bayles that the operational costs might be too high to open the library at its full potential.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the community is prepared for the fact that the library will likely have to operate at a reduced level of service.

“I don’t like the idea of saying, ‘Oh the town’s going to cut the library hours,’ but I think there’s a tolerance out there in the community for it,” said Kleinschmidt. “There’s a likelihood in the minds of many people in the community that we would roll out this operation rather than funding it in its entirety on the initial day.”

Though the library will no doubt feature in this spring’s budget negotiations, administrators are looking to the council for guidance now on whether to hire more personnel for the April opening.

The two level structure of the new library adds significantly to the cost of operation, because both floors and entrances will need to be staffed. Although closing the ground level entrance would save $70,000 a year, administrators warn it would leave the lower level understaffed and potentially unsafe. Town Manager Roger Stancil agreed.

“The second exit is a fact,” said Stancil. “If we could go back and redesign it, we might not have that second opening, we might not operate it as two libraries, but those are the facts that we’ve got.”

Nonetheless, council members told Bayles to look for ways to keep costs down, either by cutting hours or reducing circulation. Lee Storrow said the full roll-out of expanded services could take years to fund.

“We know we might have to make some tough decisions about the library that mean growing into the space over the course of months or even years,” said Storrow. “So I’m very comfortable not giving as big of an expansion to the budget as we’re seeing here tonight. I think the community is prepared for that to happen.”

Chapel Hill has been waiting a long time for its new library. The $16 million dollar expansion project was first approved by voters in 2003, but the council delayed it during the economic downturn. Though the building will reopen in just a few months time, it may take longer for the town to fully realize its dream.

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