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Concern Grows At CHPL As Reduced Weekend Hours Turn People Away

By Ran Northam Posted April 22, 2013 at 8:50 am
CHAPEL HILL – The concern about reduced hours at the newly-renovated Chapel Hill Public Library was fueled this past weekend as volunteers witnessed hundreds of people showing up before the doors opened.“I think the Town has to step up first and say on an ongoing basis, they’re prepared to fund an expanded library,” says Karen Curtin, director of the Friends of the Chapel Hill Public Library—an organization that raises money, sponsors programs, and fosters interests for the Library. “That to me is the first step, and I don’t think that decision’s been made.”Weekend hours are currently 1:00 – 5:00 p.m.A member of the Friends of the Chapel Hill Public Library Board of Directors, Cathy Harris was at the library for a meeting with Curtin and others on Saturday before business hours. She says many people didn’t get the word that the library is working on a limited schedule.“I bet there were 400 people out there,” Harris says. “There were just constant cars coming around trying to put their books they wanted to return into those boxes outside. The boxes were absolutely full, and people were trying to jam them in.”

She says since no staff members were at the library yet, there was no one available to empty the bin.“So, I put up a little makeshift sign (with an arrow) that said ‘deposit over there on the wall of the library,” Harris says.On April 10, the Town of Chapel Hill outlined major projected budget challenges for the 2013-2014 fiscal year in its preliminary budget report. That list includes the operating budget for the library, as well as increased costs of solid waste disposal, cost of implementation of the pay and class plan, funding annual street paving costs, funding of retiree health liability, reduction in state funding for transit, and restoring pay-go CIP to $1 million—all projects which different groups of people have different ties to, and all things that at least someone is greatly invested in, if only emotionally.In order to get the library up to 68 hours from the reduced 54 it’s currently running on, an additional $350,000 in operating costs is needed. That would complete the $700,000 increase that was projected for the 35,000 square feet of space added in the reconstruction.The preliminary report shows that the budget shortfall for the Town in the upcoming fiscal year is somewhere between one and two million dollars.

Of that list of major budget challenges, Curtin says she believes the library should be the top priority.

“All these libraries that are being expanded are really being expanded to add community space,” Curtin says. “They’ve become community gathering places, they’re not just (for) reading, data, or computers; it’s a place for people to gather with tons of meeting rooms, which is true with our new library. There were other people there talking about expanded libraries and saying even though they have tons more space, they have waiting lists to use them.”

She says it also serves homeless people who are trying to find jobs and can do so through the library’s internet; the Interfaith Council workers often use the library’s computers; and there are of course books and other services. In fact, the Chapel Hill Public Library has the largest per capita circulation in the State of North Carolina.

The concern is not the amount of staff the library has for the hours it’s open. Interim director Mark Bayles says once the doors were open this weekend, the crowds were nothing that couldn’t be handled.

“There were lines at times, but then there were times where it was relatively moderate in terms of the wait time to speak to a staff member to check the materials out,” Bayles says.

But, Bayles says Saturday did see the biggest surge since the reopen.

“By then we’d gotten the word out, and by the time we’d opened our doors on Saturday afternoon, there was a good crowd in front of the library waiting for us to open and remained very active throughout the day,” Bayles says.

The main concentration of the extra funds would be the addition of staff members to cover the space that’s more than double the previous structure. The hires would add up to approximately five full-time equivalents, though not simply five people. Bayles says it would be a variety of additions to existing staff hours, temporary employees, and at least two new positions—one of which wasn’t full time.

He says all ages made it out to the library over the weekend. And Curtin and Harris say a couple people that had to be turned away really tugged on their heart strings.

“We were trying to assist these people who were disappointed, and some of the children were crying because they couldn’t come in,” Harris says.

“There was a dad with his daughter, and he said, ‘you know, I promised her this morning that, if she would go shopping, we’d come to the library afterwards’,” Curtin says. “So, he gets there and he can’t get it.”

Harris says she told multiple people that it’s important to know just how the process works.

“We had to tell people not to be angry at the library because, this public library is a municipal library,” Harris says. “It has nothing to do with the budget. The Town Council takes care of the budget.”

Town Manager Roger Stancil releases his first budget outline on May 13. A public hearing will then be held May 20 at which people can give input on how they feel about the proposed budget.

Harris says until then, citizens can still give input to town officials.

“We were telling people to write to your Town Council members, and tell them how frustrated you were or whatever your feelings are,” Harris says. “The second way is by calling the Mayor’s assistant, and…a citizen…will tell that person your thoughts, and she or he will forward that information to the mayor and the council members.”

To email the Mayor and Town Council: mayorandcouncil@townofchapelhill.org

To call the Mayor’s office: 919-968-2714

The rededication ceremony for the Library begins at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.

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