There was hardly an empty seat in sight at Monday’s regular meeting of the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners. Almost every person in the audience wore a green shirt, a sign of solidarity for a single cause.
“How many of you are here on behalf of the library?” asked Commission Chair Nate McLaughlin.
Almost every person raised a hand. Some rose to their feet.
The board heard an annual report that was somber in nature from the Flagler County Library Board of Trustees at its meeting, presented by board chairman Jim Ulsamer.
“The library has become basically the cultural center of this community,” Ulsamer said.
It’s not just a place to check out books; it’s a meeting place for an astronomy club, an opera club and neighborhood watch groups, he said. It hosts early voting and, during tax time, different organizations compete for library space so they can offer free tax returns for people of low income.
Ulsamer’s presentation was more a plea than a report. He reported a steady decrease in library funding — from $1.5 million to $900,000 over the last five years — and with it, a decrease in services offered.
“We’ve reached the tipping point,” Ulsamer said. “We can’t be raiding the cookie jar anymore. This incremental drain on the library has to come to an end.”
Spending on library services is $38 per capita annually in Volusia County. It’s $25 per capita in St. Johns County. Flagler County spends $9 per capita on library services yearly, Ulsamer said.
The decrease in funding has lessened opening hours for county libraries and caused the Board of Trustees to recommend the closure of the library’s Bunnell branch, a recommendation county commissioners rejected.
Ulsamer also cited long waitlists of 50 to 75 people for new books, saying in his own experience, it’s often six to 12 months before he can check out the most popular new books from general circulation.
The library’s Palm Coast location has a leaking roof, which is detrimental in a storm-saturated climate, Ulsamer said. County Administrator Craig Coffey said that attempts to patch leaks have been unsuccessful but will not be stopped, and that the next fiscal year’s budget should have room in it for a roof replacement.
Ulsamer also said that as areas like Town Center continue to expand, the size of the Flagler County Library will become increasingly disproportionate.
“I think you need to fund the library in a responsible manner,” Ulsamer said.
He suggested a municipal service taxing system to generate funding, saying that 54,000 Flagler residents hold library cards.
Commissioner George Hanns, a member of the Friends of the Library of Flagler County himself, said that when the commission put the option of building a new library on the ballot several years ago, residents rejected the notion.
“Have we looked at what the library of the 21st century should look like?” asked Commissioner Frank Meeker. “I’m not convinced that focusing on paper products is the way to go.”
“We’re always going to stand the tests of time,” Ulsamer replied, noting that computers are among the library’s most widely-used resources and that the library recently started offering eBooks to check out.
The County Commission was sympathetic to Ulsamer’s presentation, and said keeping the library open and functioning should be a priority, but that the budget is tight. Coffey said that some funding may be available to expand the library’s physical facilities from the half-cent sales tax the commission enacted last autumn, depending on how costly the expansion of Flagler County’s jail is.
“I think we all understand that the library is a vital part of the community,” McLaughlin said.
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