Quorum Court moves to nix library cuts, reconsiders funding

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

CARROLL COUNTY -- Carroll County librarians and bibliophiles, rejoice. The Carroll County Quorum Court is considering restoring funding to libraries previously imperiled by budget cuts.

That tentative decision was reached last Friday, when Justices of the Peace met to work out a 2013 budget for county government.

A Budget Committee -- consisting of JPs Jack Deaton, John Howerton, and Dan Mumaugh -- had prepared a draft budget, which called for county-wide cuts in response to increased costs for retirement and health insurance benefits and projected revenue shortfalls.

Libraries in Green Forest, Berryville, and Eureka Springs would have seen their budgets slashed by about 5 percent -- meaning less summer programming for children, no new computers, and -- significantly -- less money for books and other materials. The cuts would have also further delayed the planned expansion of the Green Forest Public Library.

The picture began to change slightly this week, however. At Friday's meeting, County Assessor JoAnn Harris told JPs the property tax picture was brighter than earlier predicted. Revenue projections were actually higher than last year, she said.

Mumaugh and his fellow committee members did not have the benefit of this information when crafting their draft budget.

"We thought it would be better to be conservative than write a check that we couldn't cash later on," Mumaugh explained.

Toward the beginning of Friday's meeting, Lucilla Garrett, president of the Eureka Springs Carnegie Library Board, asked that JPs approve the budget originally proposed by the board.

She noted -- as library officials had during negotiations with the Budget Committee -- that the libraries were funded through a special tax that could not be used for any other purpose.

The library had sufficient revenue to afford their original budget proposal. However, that budget would not have met the 10 percent cuts demanded by the committee.

During negotiations, Mumaugh had told library directors that, though their funding was separate, it would not have been politically tenable to allow them to skate by with their budgets intact while requiring other departments to trim up.

Garrett disagreed with this approach, illustrating her point of view with a parable.

"My mother always said she loved all her children equally," she said, "and she did ... but when it came to certain things, she couldn't. We all went to college, and one was military. One was on a private foundation scholarship, and one was a work-study student."

Why, she asked, should the libraries be any different?

JP Ronald Flake echoed Garrett's sentiments later in the meeting and said he thought the library boards should be allowed more independence in budgeting their money.

"I think the libraries should be able to budget as much of their money as they need to," he said, noting that -- in his mind -- the libraries were allowed this discretion under the law.

JP Lamont Richie concurred, citing a 2001 Attorney General's opinion.

"I don't think this is saying we have to defer completely to the library board," Richie said, "but I think this is saying we have an obligation, because of the nature of the funds, to pay close attention to what the library board recommends."

JP Larry Swofford said he would not object to approving the libraries' initial requests. However, he noted that the initial requests also included a cost of living raise. The Budget Committee had earlier said they would not approve any raises for 2013.

Flake said he didn't think the Attorney General's opinion would necessitate approving the requested raises.

"I think they would have a hard time arguing that the library employees are the only ones who deserve a raise," Flake said.

Richie then raised a separate issue. He noted that both the Green Forest and the Berryville library had been squirreling away thousands of dollars into two building funds -- to be used for the eventual expansion of the libraries.

This, Richie said, could present a legal problem, because the ballot measures by which voters had approved the special library millage stipulated the money was to be used only for operating and maintenance costs.

He said there was a state law which might allow the libraries to use the funds for capital improvement, though he had been advised by an attorney with the State Legislative Research Division that this law would not apply. Still, Richie said the issue needed to be further clarified by an Attorney General's opinion.

Richie said the issue was related to the budget discussion because the libraries' initial requests had called for placing thousands of dollars more into the building funds.

"I would rather not compound the problem," he said.

Closser interjected that simply placing the money in a fund would not violate the law.

"It only becomes illegal once the money is actually spent," she said.

JPs ultimately agreed to restore the libraries initial budget requests -- minus the requested raises and the money set aside for the building funds.

They also agreed that the Eureka Springs library director would need to consult with County Treasurer Cindy Collins to ensure that the library had set aside adequate carryover funds.

The budget was then tabled.

The next meeting of the Quorum Court has been rescheduled from its regular time to 10 a.m. on Dec. 14 in the Carroll County Courthouse, in Berryville.

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