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Mike Parks

This article was originally published in the Friday, February 20th edition of "The Franklin Press;" Volume 131, Number 15. 

Leaders of the Macon County Public Library are hoping to get a late Valentine’s Day gift from legislators in Raleigh.
It would have to be a very late gift, of course, since the state’s budget likely won’t be set for many months still. But library officials have their fingers crossed that, when the budget does successfully make it to Gov. Pat McCrory’s pen, it will have more library funding packed into it.

“The state aid to public libraries has been decreasing steadily over the past several years,” Fontana Regional Library System director Karen Wallace said. “The budget started to get much tighter after 2008, and by 2011 we started to see a big decrease in funding.”

State support to the Fontana system, which also includes libraries in Jackson and Swain counties, has decreased from around $356,000 in fiscal year 2010-11 to $309,000 in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Wallace and others are pushing for funding to return to that 2010-11 level, though they’re afraid they’ll see another drop this summer. That’s why library advocates are pushing to make their voices heard on Feb. 25 during Legislative Day – when legislators in Raleigh will hear from a number of different lobbyists and residents about issues nearest and dearest to them.

“We need everyone to contact their state senator and state representative and let them know why the library is important to you, why it’s important for the state to allocate that money to us,” Wallace said. “The more people legislators hear from about the importance of their public library, the more likely it is we will receive additional funding.”

Count Amanda Maxwell and her two young children as friends of the Macon branch. They were at the library Tuesday, Feb. 17, taking advantage of the youth-focused reading materials offered, though they are often there.

“We come for children’s programs every Tuesday for the adventure club,” Maxwell said. “And in the summer we take advantage of different activities. We’re here at least twice a week … to check out books or take part in the reading programs.”

Maxwell’s 6-year-old daughter, Paytin Meyer, is a proud library supporter. She especially enjoys the library’s I Spy and Fancy Nancy books, she said.

Ronnie Beale, a Macon County commissioner and president of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners – a coalition of leaders from the state’s 100 counties – is like Paytin a library fan. Additional library funding will be one of 40 issues the coalition addresses with Raleigh legislators later this month, as it’s one of those issues all the state’s counties have in common, he said.

“The Macon County Public Library is very important to Maconians,” he said. “You can tell that by the number of people who come through the doors. Even with all the technologies and computers and everything people have at home, there is always going to be a need … for a very well run public library like we have in Macon County.”

Macon County provides funding to the system, as do county budgets in Jackson and Swain. Towns also help some, and Franklin provides support to the library’s Reading Rover, which visits day cares and other such centers. Funding also comes through grants. The system’s total budget is around $3 million, Wallace said.

Further reduction of state funding for libraries is something Beale worries the county couldn’t fix on its own. “That decrease in funding, similar to schools, brings up the issue of how much can the county come back and keep putting in financially? Because it’s a service to all Maconians,” he said. “We would hope that (legislators) would remember these things, that on a local level, these cuts really hurt. For a  county such as Macon, how much do we pick up. And once you pick it up, I assure you (the state) will let you continue.”

An extra $50,000 or so would go a long way for the Fontana region, Wallace said. In addition to the traditional services of a library – such as books, magazines and meeting space – local libraries have increased their electronic and internet options and try to offer more classes and events for all ages. Youth-centered activities such as the recent Harry Potter celebration helps encourage kids to start reading at a young age, while the library’s job training class every Wednesday is working to get unemployed Macon residents back to a reliable paycheck.

“That money would probably mean we could expand some of those services … with some more outreach, more digital resources, more events at the library or even out in the community,” Wallace said.

Despite the loss in funding, Wallace hasn’t had to take some of the steps other state library systems have in the past few years – which has included layoffs, reduced hours and even some cases of shutting libraries down entirely. Grants have helped supplement some of the need, though grants usually only pay for specific projects or events and not the operating budget, Wallace said.

“We haven’t trimmed hours yet, and we hopefully won’t have to do that,” she added. “Our business, we’re still pretty busy. We haven’t seen much of a decrease at all. And we are seeing a huge increase in people getting library cards and using our electronic resources – things like the magazines and eBooks.”

It’s still too early to tell the fate of library funding in this year’s budget, as talks on the state’s next financial package have only just begun. And legislators will hear of a number of other issues that need funding during Legislative Day – all issues that will be taken into account during months of debate and negotiations. Library advocates like Wallace are cautiously optimistic.

“Public libraries aren’t a mandate; there’s no state law that mandates a certain amount of funding to us,” she said. “Our services are available to everyone, no matter how old you are, how much money you make, how many degrees you have or don’t have. We cut across all demographic lines and do it very efficiently and cost effectively.”