County needs to step up and pay its fair share of library budget

Published 8:14 am Wednesday, April 5, 2017

It’s budget time in Carter County, and there are lots of organizations with their hands out — the Carter County Rescue Squad, county volunteer fire departments, etc. As the county struggles to fund essential services such as fire protection and safe infrastructure, some commissioners eye the “non-essential” service provided by the public library as a place to cut the budget.

At Monday evening’s meeting of the Carter County Budget Committee, Elizabethton-Carter County Public Library Director Renita Barksdale made a passionate plea to the committee for funds. Last year the library received $60,000 from Carter County, which pales in comparison to the $534,000 in city funds. While the county’s contribution equaled only 10 percent of the library’s budget, approximately 75 percent of the library’s patrons live outside the city.

Elizabethton City residents are also county taxpayers, however, their city taxes are subsidizing library services for county residents. By far, the county should be paying much, much more.

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The Elizabethton-Carter County Public Library is a dynamic, versatile community center. While books still dominate the shelves at the library, its patrons are seeking more than stories. Many who visit the library use it to access the Internet. They use this access, among other purposes, to find work, apply to college, secure government benefits and learn about critical medical treatments. For decades, our public libraries have served as a hub of timeless classics and new books and magazines. But as technology has developed, so has the library’s role.

The demand for technology is there, even if the money may not be.

As more employers switch to online job applications, more people come to the library to look for work. Many of these people have minimal experience with the machines. Phrases like “search bar,” “left click” and “X out of that screen” mean nothing to them. Often they need help launching a search engine or even navigating from screen to screen.

It’s really difficult because they have no idea how to use computers, which means library staff must help them. But serving more people typically equals more funding and more resources.

The library is a great resource center. It offers access to online reference materials and genealogy websites, enhancing the community’s awareness of its local history.

The library is also a great activity center for children, offering reading and learning activities for both pre-school and school-age children. It offers a summer reading program and last year was the site of a community garden and summer lunch program.

Public libraries of all sizes face funding challenges, but it is compounded in small communities such as Elizabethton and Carter County because of smaller budgets and tax bases. Another reason is because many in our county government do not realize the importance of the library and the many services it provides. Many have never visited the library.

Books are expensive as are many of the other services the library offers, such as computers and the maintenance of them. The library staff is among the most creative in the region, stretching its services to include as many patrons as possible. Friends of the Library, its volunteer group, is a key funding arm of the library, providing a way for citizens to contribute directly to support library services, beyond the support they already provide through payment of taxes. Their fundraisers, such as two used book sales each year, help with programming, landscaping, children’s activities, and furnishings.

Our library is a vital part of our community. We have commissioners who do not feel the library is needed, and they do not want taxes to go up. They are being asked to decide what services are essential — fixing roads or buying books.

Books don’t generate revenue nor does computer usage at the library, but they are vital services that must be supported and funded if the library is to survive. We are simply asking that the county become a supporting player in the daily life of the library and pay its fair share. The dividends of such support will certainly pay off in the long run.