Perry County library closing not a simple story

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Zachary Oren Smith

A news story about recent budget cuts that closed the public library in New Augusta hangs below the closed sign.

NEW AUGUSTA — It’s difficult to see inside the public library. Obstructing the view through the front door is a red “CLOSED” sign.

Beneath it, obscuring a notice from the county, a green sheet of paper holds in place a news article that reads: “Budget cuts affect local services. … When supervisors approved the budget and tax levy last week at their meeting there were budget cuts that affect most every office in the county.”

The best guess on what’s inside the building comes from a Sept. 22 grand jury final report: “New Augusta Public Library – This office could probably benefit from new computers. The computer system is out of date and the computers will not accept any newer updates. The floors need to be buffed, but the library does not have a buffer.”

In a Sept. 20 letter, Bobby Bolton, a member of the Perry County Board of Supervisors, explained that due to “decreased revenue from state and federal sources and unfunded mandates from the State each year,” the county could no longer afford to provide funds to support the library.

“Why would you even close down the library?” asks local resident Felicia Noland. “It’s a shame for a small community.”

Critics of the closure say that it is a shame to lose a library, which stands as a symbol of community unity, vitality and opportunity. But while the closure of a small town library may seem like a peccadillo to budget crunchers in Jackson, the controversy highlights the difficult choices local government leaders face under the strain of uncertain economic times.

New Augusta’s library — the building sits at the intersection of 1st Street and 8th Avenue, across from the elementary school — is one of eight branches under the management of the Pine Forest Regional Library System. The system was set up in 1958 as a way of balancing the need for libraries in rural South Mississippi and the cost of running them.

Covington, Wayne and Lamar counties were original members of the system, but by 2013, only Perry, Greene and Stone counties remained. Covington County paid $92,850 in library support in 2009. Funding for the system became tighter after Covington pulled out and formed its own library system.

Perry County used to contribute the next highest to Covington, but support dropped from $83,000 in 2011 to $60,000 in 2014. Now that Perry has pulled out as a member county, funding for the library system will be under greater strain.

According to the Pine Forest Regional Library System’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, the system was receiving $65,000 for Green County’s three libraries, $65,000 for Stone County’s two libraries, $58,550 for Perry County’s three libraries and $87,466 from the Mississippi Library Commission’s Personnel Incentive Grant Program for the administrative headquarters located on the second floor of Richton’s public library.

Each fiscal year, the Mississippi Library Commission provides grants to bolster library finances across the state. The commission’s Personnel Incentive Grant Program offers additional money to libraries based on the size of the populations served, presence of a system director with a master’s degree in library science and other accreditation standards set by the commission.

When Perry County pulled out, it potentially takes not only its county contributions but also some of the personnel grant money from the state commission.

Communication issues 

Paul Walley, attorney for the Perry County Board of Supervisors, says the county’s decision not to fund the library was the outcome of years of bad communication with the Pine Forest Regional Library System.

Paul Walley, attorney for the Perry County Board of Supervisors

Walley said that the library system’s director, Charles Cox, had not turned in budget requests or annual reports for a number of years. Consequently, the county has funded the library system on resolution each year.

“They’re required to put in that budget request in July of every year. … That’s kind of how the process works. You get your request in July and then in August you have your hearing and then adopt it or approve it, and we had not gotten requests from them in years,” Walley said.

Adding to the friction between the county and the library system, Walley said, was the amount of the library budget that went towards administrative costs instead of reading materials.

“The last budget, the best we could read it … the amount of money they were putting into books and periodicals was a very small part of their budget for running the library,” he said.

According to the fiscal year 2016 budget proposal, Perry County was asked to put forward $58,500. In addition, a tech grant brings in about $12,500, and fines and fees were expected to generate $1,600 to support Perry County libraries for an overall total of $72,700.

From that, $34,522 was budgeted to go towards payroll and $31,379 was to go towards operations, which includes the cost of a yearly audit, bond payment, insurance and similar expenses. The budget proposals shows that $950 was to go for books and periodicals, and the final $3,000 would go towards office expenses, programming, postage and travel.

The Pine Forest Library System provided budget documents to Mississippi Today that showed their administrative headquarters proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2016 was $119,483. Of that, $87,466 came from state library commission grants.

The budget document showed that the only county contributing that year toward the administrative headquarters was Greene County, providing $8,178. The $58,500 that Perry committed to the system that year was earmarked to go directly to Perry County’s branches.

“People will typically ask you, ‘Well, we need the library for the children,’ ” Walley said. “And certainly nobody wants to reduce any asset to the children. If you look at most of the hours the library is open, the children are in school. It was very limited in the afternoon when they were open. They aren’t open on Saturdays.”

“They wouldn’t change their hours to be open in the evening when the children could actually go or on Saturdays,” he added. “If it was all about the children, then certainly the hours were not geared around the children.”

Conflict with library system administrator

A major sticking point for the Perry County board was its dealings with Cox, the library’s system director, Walley said.

“When he did come (to meetings), it was rather contentious,” Walley said. “He just really was not very forthcoming and just didn’t like having to explain what they were doing or why they were doing it. He didn’t want to consider the possibility of altering, amending, lowering the budget. … There was just not very good communication between him and the county.”

According to the library system’s 2013 charter, each county appoints two representatives to the system’s board of trustees.

For fiscal year 2013, Perry County nominated Sharron Lott for its second representative, which had been vacant for years. Lott called Cox to confirm the time and location of the quarterly board of trustees meeting, and she says Cox told her, “Perry County doesn’t want to support the library, and Perry county doesn’t deserve representation.”

The only mention of Lott in the library system’s board minutes is that she was absent for the January 2013 meeting.

Cox defends library system

When Mississippi Today sat down with Charles Cox, he told a very different story. He said the Pine Forest Regional Library System has been doing its part and the Perry County supervisors have been the ones who were difficult to communicate with.

Charles Cox is the director of the Pine Forest Regional Library System.

In 2007, the year he came on as director, Cox said, he was told by Linda Bolton, head librarian of two Perry County locations, that the lights were out and the air conditioning pump was not working at the Runnelstown library branch.

Hoping to avoid liability, Cox told her to spend as little time there as possible. He asked her to contact the Perry County Board of Supervisors. Because the building is owned by the county, they would need to find the money to fix it, he said.

Then Cox got a call from Bolton: “She told me, ‘Guess they are going to do something about the heat.’ When I asked her what she meant, she told me the unit was gone off the slab. So we called the county and learned it had been stolen. They didn’t come get it. Somebody lifted the damn thing. That county didn’t know a damn thing about it.”

The following spring, Cox says he sent a letter to the Perry County supervisors about problems at the Runnelstown facility. He says he never received a response.

Cox said he decided to pull all of the county’s property out of the Runnelstown site before the cold damaged it. This included some computers and books. He spread them out across the other three libraries, he said.

“When they finally found out about it, they asked, ‘What are you doing closing Runnelstown?’ How many times am I supposed to contact them? I called. They were contacted by my assistant director. What is it supposed to take? What are we supposed to do? I’m not going to leave an employee in that building under those conditions,” Cox said. “That’s an OSHA violation.”

When Mississippi Today met with Cox about the supervisors’ complaints against the library system, he handed over audit reports dating back to 2005, two years before he started working there.

Cox says the county representatives on the library board are responsible for delivering the budget requests and audits to the various boards of supervisors. Mississippi Today was unable to reach Gertrude Broom, the other library representative from Perry County, to determine if she had presented those documents to the supervisors.

Declining forestry revenue led to budget woes

Both Cox and Walley pointed to declines in forestry revenue as the underlying issue that has caused funding problems for the library system.

“Perry County funds the Pine Forest Library System via appropriations from the county’s general fund,” Walley said. “With less forestry money coming in, the general fund has been tight.”

“Here’s the issue with the tax base,” County Administrator Natalie Harvison said. “You have many of us who are graduating into that over 65 reduced taxation rate. Then you have a younger generation that would be picking up the slack, but there is no industry to keep them around.”

Almost half of Perry County is taken up by DeSoto National Forest. The county received compensation for timber sales that helped cover everything from public schools to libraries. However, timber sales have declined. In 2000, Congress enacted the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act that offered a temporary subsidy based on historic revenue rather than what the forests sales were actually bringing in.

Congress has periodically reauthorized the act, but without the steady stream of income from forestry sales, cuts have to be made, Walley said.

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Kevin Shows, president of the Perry County Board of Supervisors

“Cutting the library was not because of (Cox). We cut it because we don’t have the money,” said Kevin Shows, president of the Perry County Board of Supervisors. “We lost so much (forestry) money, and we had so many unfunded mandates. When that happens, something’s got to give. The library wasn’t the only one to get a cut.”

At the same time that it cut support to the regional libraries, Perry County also stopped funding agencies such as the Health Department (cutting $46,000), the area development partnership (saving $25,000) and the Soil and Water Conservation District (an $18,000 cut).

“We have really lost major value from the National Forest,” Harvison said. “If the land was being taxed that private people owned or timber companies, it would really be a major difference for Perry County, but I mean, we are getting almost nothing off of half the county.”

Impact on a community 

Susan Cassagne, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission, says cutting libraries in moments of economic uncertainty can be debilitating for an area.

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

The public library in New Augusta

“Studies have shown that in times of economic strife, libraries are more needed than ever,” Cassagne said. “When you have parents that don’t have internet at home, children need the library.

“You’ve got people that are out of work and don’t have a computer or internet access at home. They need to use the library,” Cassange said. “Most jobs have to be applied for online. Even if they did have internet in the beginning, it would probably be one of the things they would eliminate from their budget if they were out of work.”

Added Felicia Noland, a mother of four who moved to the area from Petal six years ago: “We don’t have a lot for the kids here, but the library, the library had books, movies and community functions. It’s just a really great place.

“I think a lot of the kids get in trouble in this town because they don’t have places like the library to go,” she added.

Her son, Tristan Spiers, remembers going to the library a lot as a younger child, using it to come up with ideas for science fair projects for school. He goes less frequently now and wasn’t aware the New Augusta library had closed until asked about it.

“Things just keep moving out of New Augusta,” Spiers said. “I mean, we lost two groceries, the Greer’s and the Food Tiger. Now we’re losing this.”

With both Perry County and the library system under strain, the chances of providing public services like internet access that used to come from the New Augusta library seems bleak.

“One of (the counties) cuts money to us, and we lose some state funding because our rates are tied to the served population. When that happens, headquarters gets collapsed,” Cox says. “If headquarters collapses, you have no library system because legally, without us to do the payroll, to do the insurance, to have someone in my position, you are not legally recognized by the state of Mississippi. Which means all the grant money dries up.”