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Library to seek new, smaller levy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha County library system isn't ready to give up its funding fight.

The library board of directors voted Wednesday to approach Kanawha County Schools for a new library-specific levy in the general election.

According to board president Michael Albert, the board has drafted a letter to Kanawha County Schools requesting time to present its proposal during the county's regular board of education meeting in February.

The county's library system lost 40 percent of its total operating budget when the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the county school system no longer had to financially support it. Kanawha County Schools ran a levy in November requesting $24.4 million for schools and $3 million for libraries, but voters overwhelmingly voted against it.

The KCPL does not have the authority to run its own bond. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper told the Gazette in November that he would not support a library levy alongside the county's public safety levy in May.

 "I don't think there's any thought that we would want the primary ballot to look like a Christmas tree, with an ambulance and bus levy already on there," Albert said.

 According Alan Engelbert, KCPL director, the agency chose to approach the county schools again because of the longstanding relationship between the two, and because of the rules governing school levies -- a county schools levy can pass with a 51 percent majority, but a county levy must have 60 percent of the vote to pass.

"We've had a relationship with the Kanawha County board of education since 1909, and we've been continuously funded by them since 1911," Englebert said. "We've had a long relationship, and so they are our first choice."

 The board has vetted several plans moving forward in the wake of the budget cuts. While the KCPL has not made any layoffs yet as a result of the looming decrease, Albert said nearly 40 employees have resigned or retired since the beginning of the 2012-13 fiscal year. The library system had roughly 160 employees before the losses; as a result, it has been forced to reduce hours at its Sissonville branch and close the technology department and cut the programs and hours of the children's department at the main branch.

While Albert said he did not foresee any immediate layoffs, he added that there would be a potential for them if the library was unable to secure permanent funding. The board voted to retain the law firm Flaherty, Sensabaugh & Bonasso for dealing with personnel issues in the event of layoffs.

"To date, everyone we've dealt with has either retired or resigned, so I don't think we have a major problem, but going forward, depending on how we go about this, we may or may not have need of their use," Albert said.

Albert said the move was in response to a recommendation from their legal affairs committee. The firm charges $200 per hour for partner consultation and $175 per hour for an associate; while it was the cheapest firm the library received an offer from, Albert said the fees were "a little more than we're used to paying."

Following the Legislature's decision regarding the libraries' funding, Kanawha County Schools agreed to fund the KCPL through July of this year. After that, the agency will need to find alternate funding or drastically reduce its operations. According to Albert, the KCPL has always operated in the black, and has amassed a rainy day fund it may be able to use to carry the library system for a short time after July.

"In order to keep some of our stronger branches open, we might dip into that reserve in order to supplement some of the revenue we had," Albert said. "That is not a long-term solution; we've seen several cases of people who've thought that was the way to go, and libraries that have gotten into deep trouble living off of a reserve that disappears, and then you're stuck with commitments."

Albert said while the reserve is healthy, it's not enough to carry the library for an extended period. According to Engelbert, the system may be able to survive a year on the fund.

The board voted to support its 2014 legislative goals, although both Albert and Engelbert said the potential of receiving state support for the county's libraries is very slim.

The board also discussed previous ideas for reducing services in the event of the loss of funding, including potentially closing six of its branches and the mobile library, but Engelbert said everyone agreed it was the last thing they wanted to do. The board has not pinpointed which branches would close in that scenario, he said.

"Looking at the other options, it's so ugly," Engelbert said. "The idea of closing six braches and taking out the mobile library -- all of those kinds of options are so harmful."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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