CHAPEL HILL- The Chapel Hill Town Council faces mounting pressure to increase library funding, but that’s just one of many tough choices this budget season.
John Morris was one of a dozen residents who came out on Monday to ask the Chapel Hill Town Council to increase funding for the newly expanded library.
“The people who are hurt most by the cut in hours are not any special interest group, or the Chapel Hill elite, whoever that might be,” said Morris. “The people who are hurt most are parents with children, families who work long hours, and those who don’t have the money to buy their own books and computers. That’s who we’re standing up for.”
Morris presented the council with a petition signed by more than 850 library patrons, all calling for the library to stay open 68 hours a week.
Since the expansion project was completed last month, library hours have been cut to 54 hours a week. Town Manager Roger Stancil’s recommended budget offers an extra $100,000 for additional staffing to bring that number up to 58 hours a week, but many say that’s not enough.
Council member Jim Ward said he wants to find an extra quarter million to restore the library to its full schedule.
“I want to start that conversation about changing the numbers right now, and I am supportive of fully funding the library hours,” said Ward. “To me, as evidenced by 2020, evidenced by the emails that we’ve gotten, evidenced by the people who came this evening to talk to us- that’s the old-fashioned version of priority-based budgeting.”
But others on the council didn’t see it that way. Lee Storrow said he’d prefer an incremental increase, with input from the new library director.
“I feel that it may not be the most responsible decision for us to jump from where we are now to 68 [hours] without the knowledge and the wisdom of a couple of months of operation under our new library director, who might have some expertise that I know I don’t have,” said Storrow.
Library Director Susan Brown starts work this week, at a time when the issue of library hours has become a lightening rod for resident concerns about how to balance a tight budget.
After four years without a property tax increase and seven without a transit fund increase, Roger Stancil says the budget gaps are unavoidable. He’s recommending a two-cent property tax rate hike to be split between Chapel Hill Transit and other big ticket items like library funding and solid waste disposal.
This year is the first time the council has undertaken priority budgeting, a ranking process meant to better align town spending with community values.
But budget staffers say it was only partially implemented throughout the planning process, and some on the council don’t see that it’s made any difference.
Matt Czajkowski said the current budget method doesn’t help the council when it comes to making tough choices.
“In the budget is a proposed two percent increase for [town] employees. Which of the library supporters would like us to see us reduce our raise to the employees so that we can fund the library?” asked Czajkowski. “That’s priority budgeting.”
Monday’s public hearing was just the beginning of the budget negotiation process. Looking ahead, Donna Bell reminded her peers to focus on the bigger picture.
“I just want to see if we could bring it back out, because I don’t want it to feel like this is a conversation about if we want to have the library funded or not have the library funded,” said Bell. “How do we do all the things that we want to do?”
The council will hold a work session on employee compensation and heath benefits at the library this Wednesday, and discuss the future of Chapel Hill Transit at a work session scheduled for June 3. The final budget will likely be adopted on June 10.