In Gwinnett County, Plan To Close Three-Year-Old Branch Generates Uproar
Library board, charged with lack of transparency, will revisit decision next month
Norman Oder -- Library Journal, 08/14/2009
- Decision made without advance notice
- Library faces nearly 10% cut in local support
- Board will consider sharing the burden
Major protests are causing the board of the Gwinnett County Public Library (GCPL), Lawrenceville, GA, to reconsider its surprise decision to close the three-year-old Dacula branch and transfer its staff, collection, and funding to a newly-constructed branch in the same area of the county. The board will revisit the decision next month and consider plans to reduce services systemwide without closing any of the 14 branches. GCPL, named LJ's 2000 Library of the Year, faces a nine to ten percent budget cut.
Beyond the expected response from the affected community—a Save Dacula Library Facebook group gained more than 1700 members in less than four days—the decision also prompted protests that GCPL failed to alert board members or the public that such a closing was under consideration. Some residents are inquiring whether sunshine laws were violated.
While library officials say they are making tough decisions in a time of limited resources, the decision, to some, reflected tensions within the county. The Dacula branch is in the district of a county commissioner who has long been in conflict with the chair of the commission; in the Gwinnett Daily Post, he charged that the planned closing was retribution for his decision to support a gubernatorial candidate other than the stepson of Board Chair Phyllis Oxendine. In turn, Oxendine called that “ludicrous.”
At a meeting August 11, the board voted 3-1 to close the library, with board member Philip Saxton calling the decision “shameful.” In a letter to the county commissioners, Dacula mayor Jimmy Wilbanks protested that the decision was made without public participation; he tweeted, “Stupid politics, Stupid, Stupid.” The Dacula Business Association plans a rally on August 18 at noon.
Library director Nancy Stanbery-Kellam yesterday posted an explanation and justification of the board’s action. She pointed to a July 7 letter in which the library had been “forced to make some drastic decisions,” including cutting hours, staff, programming, materials (by eight percent), and security guards. The annual Gwinnett Reading Festival was suspended until further notice.
With more reductions in county support expected in January, GCPL will have to make further cuts. And with the county’s decision to withhold $1.4 million to operate the new Hamilton Mill Branch, GCPL decided not to wait for a county budget restoration, given that a $2 million state grant could be jeopardized “if the building is not fully operational within a designated time frame.” Hamilton Mill, expected to cost $7.4 million and to open in December, would be GCPL’s first “green” branch, with the Silver Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification anticipated.
The 20,000 square foot Dacula Branch, Stanbery-Kellam wrote, is the same size as Hamilton Mill and thus the only one in that part of the service area with the same amount of staff. While another branch, Buford, is also seven miles from Hamilton Mill (rendering at right), it’s half the size. By switching Dacula’s collection to Hamilton Mill, GCPL would save on an opening day collection as well. Dacula could be used for storage of retrospective fiction, among other things, she wrote.
An article in the Gwinnett Daily Post generated dozens of comments. One reader suggested that Dacula was chosen “because of the unruly kids that invade it after school closes every day.” Others called it political payback.
Stanbery-Kellam told LJ that, in January, after Gwinnett County adopts its calendar year 2010 budget—the library’s on a July 1–June 30 fiscal year—GCPL may have to close two branches to regular service and use them for computers and the pickup of holds. In fact, GCPL will have to ask the state for a waiver of the “maintenance of effort” requirement regarding local funding, thus allowing it to collect $1.5 million in crucial state funds.
Have any other libraries closed recently-opened branches? Stanbery-Kellam told LJ she didn’t know of any, but she had heard about newly-completed buildings that couldn’t be staffed. “We are living in an economy where lots of people are doing things they never want to do,” she said.
Board member Saxton told LJ, “I don’t believe we should be closing libraries, in these tough economic times.” He suggested raising revenue by increasing late fees, charging out-of-county residents more for cards, and charging for DVDs and even computer usage.
He also has suggested automatically charging adult, employed residents for library cards, though to LJ he amended that to a requests for annual voluntary payments. “In addition, we should be looking at flexible hours,” he said. “It is far better to keep all the libraries open, even if only three or four days a week, than to close libraries.”
Stanbery-Kellam said that GCPL would not consider requiring residents to pay for service, but would consider new fees and increased fundraising. She also saw something of a silver lining. Over the past year, she said, people have been reminded of the importance of public libraries. “But if the money’s not there, it’s not there,” she said. “We’re the victims of our own success.”
Saxton agreed: “Literally thousands of people have spoken out in favor of supporting our library system.”