Board to pursue handing library over to the county

By Lynn R. Parks

he board of the Seaford District Library voted last week to “begin dialog” with Sussex County regarding turning the library over to the county. The library is now owned and operated by the five-member independent board. Ten other libraries in Sussex are independently operated. If board members opt to join the county system, the library will join the three existing county libraries, in Bethany, Greenwood and Milton. All library assets, including its building on Porter Street, will become county property. The board would be dismantled.
The board has come to this point following two years of discussion about building a new facility. Construction costs have been estimated at $7.8 million, half of which the board is requesting the state pay. The state set aside $388,000 in this year’s bond bill for construction of a Seaford library. The board has requested $1.7 million in next year’s bond bill and anticipates asking for a total of $3.5 million over the next four years.
The other half of the cost would have to be matched by local and other private contributions. But public support for the project has not been what the board hoped. Disagreement over a location has divided the community and the board has been unable to rally support from the city and from area service clubs.

“We have talked to a number of organizations,” said board treasurer Doug Hunter. “And when we go to the subject of fund-raising, they all say, ‘It’s a nice idea, but...’ It comes down to, do we think that we can raise $3.5 million by ourselves?” Even if the county assumes control of the library, a new building would be a necessity, Hunter added. But in that case, county funds would also be thrown into the mix, said county librarian Carol Fitzgerald. During the Wednesday-evening meeting, Hunter outlined the advantages of becoming a county library. First is funding, he said.
“The county libraries that I know of have budgets that are twice the one I have,” he said.

The Seaford library’s total budget is $253,801 this year, $157,931 of which comes from the county. The county budget for 2002 contains $376,000 for the Bethany library, $195,000 for Greenwood’s and $302,000 for Milton’s. County libraries also receive private donations, not included in the county budget. In addition, the county would pick up costs for health insurance, which the Seaford library has had to scale back to cover full-time employees only. Coverage for full-time employees and their dependents became “unaffordable,” Hunter said. “Eventually, we may be able to offer no benefits to the staff, even though we have a brand new building,” he said. “That says something about the effectiveness of the independent system.” The county would also pay for upkeep on the building and grounds; janitorial and grass-cutting services alone cost the library up to $5,000 a year. Accounting and cataloging would be done by the county, leaving local staff free to help patrons, he said. Training and development for staff would also be provided by the county.

“We would be able to set a common direction of services with the county,” Hunter added. “We would be able to have growth and development planned in such a way that we could raise educational standards throughout the county. When we are independent, we are always thinking about what is good for Seaford versus what is good for the county as a whole.” Hunter also spelled out the disadvantages of joining the county system: “We would have to turn the facility and all our assets over to the county,” he said. The Seaford library has about $450,000 in investments, the interest from which amounts to about $12,000 a year. Much of that money came from bequests and some is required by the terms of the will to be used for specific purposes. For example, a $300,000 bequest must be used to purchase books for children and teenagers. Those terms would be honored by the county.
“The county would assume control of the library,” Hunter added. “The county could determine to change our hours, or our level of service. It would be out of our control.” But county librarian Fitzgerald, who attended the meeting, said that county libraries “rely a lot on community input.” She added, “We constantly rely on users and friends’ groups and we are very interested in when the community thinks and feels. We don’t operate in a vacuum.” If the library does become part of the county system, its 14 employees would be required to apply for jobs. “The county would then make a decision based on the education and experience,” Fitzgerald said. “We would certainly take into account that they have already worked here. But I can’t say that if someone applies with more experience, they wouldn’t also have an equal shot.”

Several members of the community who attended the meeting warned board members that they have not consulted the public sufficiently in either planning for construction or in deciding on whether to join the county system. “You have not educated the public” on what it means to join the county system, said Joan O’Day, Seaford. “They need to be made aware of the pros and cons.” “Everybody still doesn’t understand what you are doing,” agreed Karen Taylor, Seaford. “You really need to work on educating the public.” “We have rehashed this for two years,” responded Villasenor. “We are not getting anywhere. We have got to do something.”

Board member Rose Adams said that she is “getting very frustrated” with the board’s lack of action. “Every time we have a meeting, we come to a standstill,” she said. “We have got to move forward. We have to set a date to make a decision. I am getting sick of it.” Board members voted unanimously to explore joining the county system. Several members agreed to attend the county library advisory council meeting Tuesday, Oct. 16, and to report back to the next board meeting Tuesday, Oct. 23. “We will come to a definite decision at the next meeting,” Hunter promised. “We have been at this for two years and I am ready to move off the dime.”

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