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Finance Committee says no to library

Westtown Library is one of two closed because of budget constraints. Dougherty County officials are considering whether to reopen it or Southside Library in the new budget year,

Westtown Library is one of two closed because of budget constraints. Dougherty County officials are considering whether to reopen it or Southside Library in the new budget year,

ALBANY, Ga. — Although the Dougherty County Commission’s Finance Committee voted 2-1 Friday morning not to recommend that the commission budget $150,000 to re-open one of two library branches closed by the county”s Library Board in December of last year, the Library Board’s chairman said the matter is not settled.

“If I had it to do over, I would have made it clear that our recommendation (that the library be re-opened and funded for full, 40-hour weeks) was not an all-or-nothing recommendation,” board chairman Walter Kelley said. “The board did not really expect the full 40-hour funding to be approved, but we thought it was best to negotiate down.

“Frankly, I was surprised that none of the other options (presented to the Finance Committee by interim Library Director Mike Dugan) was discussed.”

Dugan had put together 16-hour, 30-hour and 40-hour options for re-opening either the Westtown or Southside branch, both of which had been closed as an emergency funding measure. Costs associated with each respective option ranged from $68,833 to $124,692 to $150,746.

District 2 Commissioner John Hayes, who serves on both the Finance Committee and the Library Board, attempted to discuss a possible funding compromise, but his efforts were thwarted by a procedural technicality. District 4 Commissioner Ewell Lyle offered a motion to deny the Library Board’s request, and Hayes said he would “second the matter for discussion.”

When he attempted to offer a counter-motion to consider funding at a lower rate, Committee Chairman Lamar Hudgins pointed out that since he had seconded the original motion, Hayes could not offer an alternate motion.

“I applaud the Library Board for making the tough decision to close the two library branches six months ago,” Lyle said. “My question now is, what’s changed?”

“We have received quite a number of requests to re-open the libraries, and we feel that it is our duty to listen to the people who pay for them,” Kelley said. “We’ve become more sensitive to the needs of the community; that’s what’s changed.

“We couldn’t afford to keep all five branches open, so we closed two. If we had the money in our budget, we’d re-open both of them. Economic reality dictates that we can’t do both at this time, but we felt it was time to try and open one. One thing is sure: Ask not, and you shall not receive.”

Before the vote, Hayes asked his fellow commissioners to consider the long-term effects of the branch closings on the community, some of which Library Board Vice Chairman James Hill had mentioned in comments to the Finance Committee.

“As Dr. Hill said, the illiteracy rate in our community impacts economic development issues such as an unprepared work force,” Hayes said. “Is (keeping libraries open) a panacea that will fix all our problems? No, but it’s a vital part of that equation.

“I also believe our citizens put up a valid argument when they mention that they’re the ones paying for the services we provide in the county. I don’t know where the happy balance is in this case; there probably isn’t one. But this issue impacts us in more ways than we care to sit and think through.”

After Kelley, Dugan and Hill left the meeting, Hudgins called for the vote on whether to recommend the funding to the entire commission at its business meeting Monday morning.

“This is one of those things where the heart says ‘yes,’ but the head says ‘no,’” Hudgins said. “Frankly, with all they have going on — the renovation project on the downtown branch and finding a new director — I think they need to let things settle a bit.”

After being informed of the committee’s vote, Kelley said, “I think it’s important for the commission to know that we would be thankful for any amount of funding that would allow us to provide meaningful service to the patrons who use the Westtown branch. I don’t mind coming back again (Monday) and letting the commissioners know that personally.”