ALBANY, Ga. -- After an extended and spirited debate, the question of allocating more money to re-open one of two closed Dougherty County Library branches came down to a last-second decision by a fence-sitting member of the Dougherty County Commission.
Commissioner Jack Stone, who had lamented the fact that the county had been so far unable to re-open both the Westtown and Southside library branches, closed by the county's Library Board in December as an austerity measure, decided at the last second to support a measure to allocate an additional $68,833 that will allow the library system to re-open the Westtown branch for a minimum of 16 hours a week.
"I'm going to support this," Stone said abruptly after colleagues John Hayes, Clinton Johnson and Gloria Gaines raised their hands in support of the measure, offered by District 3's Johnson as an alternative to a $150,746 allocation voted down moments earlier by the commission. Stone added after the meeting, "I've been thinking this over, and I just felt it was the right thing to do."
Gaines had earlier lamented the notion that the library funding was not given the same consideration as the county's jail appropriations.
"We had no problem finding additional money for the jail, which is the total antithesis of re-opening our libraries, but when it comes to funding for the libraries we simply say we can't," the District 5 commissioner said. "Nobody even quibbled when we were told we would need more money for the jail."
District 1 Commissioner Lamar Hudgins told the commission any additional funding allocated for the library system, which already has a 2.7 percent increase earmarked for the Fiscal Year 2014 budget that the commission will vote on next week, would come from reserves.
"You tend to do a little long-term thinking when you're on a lawn mower in Baker County," Hudgins, who chairs the county's Finance Committee, said. "The only way we're ever going to be able to give our employees more money, which they deserve, is to keep our reserves at a level that will allow us to do so. If we keep drawing down and drawing down, it will take that option away."
Gaines said she and District 2's Hayes had discussed the possibility of finding wiggle room in the budget to at least give the county's 650 employees some kind of bonus during the year, and Hudgins remarked, "That $150,000 (being sought by the Library Board) would be $253 for each of our employees."
Library Board Chairman Walter Kelley told the commission that while it recommended the $150,746 allocation to open the Westtown branch 40 hours a week, the board's ultimate goal was to get both branches re-opened to provide services for patrons who used the two branches regularly.
"Certainly we'd be thankful, and we believe we could manage (re-opening Westtown), with any amount of money this board saw fit to give us," he said.
Before the vote, District 4 Commissioner Ewell Lyle said he'd be concerned what other employees and other departments would think about an increase for the library system when they had been told to make budget cuts.
"Where I'm having difficulty with this is that we've told our employees that we couldn't find more money in the budget for them, but when they read -- and they will read about it -- that we're doing this for the library, what are they going to think?" Lyle said.
Stone replied, "I for one would like to see both libraries opened back up, but reality is reality. Our financial situation has not changed."
After the commission unanimously voted down the request for $150,000, Johnson offered an alternate motion to consider the 16-hour, $68,833 option prepared by interim Library Director Mike Dugan. That motion carried by a 4-3 vote, leaving county staff to work the additional funding into the FY 2014 budget.
Hayes, who serves on both the Library Board and the commission's Budget Committee, said there are times when the county's financial responsibilities must be tempered.
"Do we shut down EMS or any other critical function if we have budget constraints?" Hayes asked. "Well, by closing our libraries, we literally create a great disadvantage to our citizens, who ultimately paid for the services. It matters to those children on the south side of town who don't go home to their iPads and personal computers."
Dugan told the Library Board at a called meeting last week that if funding is allocated for a library re-opening, it will take six to seven months of preparation before the doors are actually opened.