By NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – It’s a bitter irony for public libraries that the worst state budget cuts in recent history come at a time of record patronage.
Never before have so many people frequented their public libraries. Free access to books, DVDs, computers and the Internet allows them to save money during times of economic hardship.
The state, too, recognizes that libraries can save it money, but in an entirely different way. Saddled with gaping deficits, Mississippi has slashed its public library allocations this fiscal year by nearly 10 percent. And more reductions are expected.
“So far we’ve seen a cut of over $600,000 in the state fund that goes to public libraries through the personnel-incentive grant program,” said Sharman B. Smith, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission.
The personnel-incentive grant program provides money to Mississippi’s public library systems, allowing them to offset staff salaries. Half of the money is distributed by county, the other half by per-capita population counts.
Two budget cuts already have reduced the $5.9 million budgeted for the program in FY10, which began in July. It now stands at $5.3 million.
Library officials have been told to brace for another cut before the fiscal year ends June 30.
“When 30 percent of your salaries come from state aid,” Smith said, “and that state aid is cut by 10 percent, you can see what a drastic impact that has on library budgets.”
The Dixie Regional Library System, which serves Pontotoc, Calhoun and Chickasaw counties, will lose more than $12,000 from the state this year. To cope, Director Judy McNeece slashed her book budget, cut back on office supplies and barely runs the heaters.
Even those measures can’t prevent staff reductions.
“We had one person retire in December, and so we have not filled that position,” McNeece said. “I am expecting to lay off somebody this week. I’ve never had to do this before, and it’s really depressing.”
It’s also counterintuitive: Library usage has skyrocketed with 400-600 people entering the main branch in Pontotoc every day. The system needs more staff, McNeece said, not less.
The Northeast Regional Library System has avoided layoffs despite more than $18,000 in state cuts this year. But officials there have postponed new computer purchases, and they treat office supplies as though they’re an endangered resource.
“We were very frugal last year, and we will be very frugal this year,” said Director William McMullin, who oversees branches in Alcorn, Prentiss, Tippah and Tishomingo counties.
“We had a 13 percent increase in usage throughout our system in fiscal year 2009 and are holding steady for fiscal year 2010,” he said. “We really want to keep our staff in place as much as we possibly can.”
In addition to state dollars, public libraries also receive city and county allocations. Local funding has remained stable for most systems, and in some cases it has increased. But rising utilities and technology costs often gobble those extra bucks.
Both Tupelo and Lee County governments increased annual shares to the Lee-Itawamba Library System by a combined $30,000 this year, said Director Jan Willis. But the county’s share – $22,000 – went directly toward offsetting higher utility costs.
It still helps cushion the blow of nearly $20,000 in state cuts this year, but not enough to prevent halving one staff member’s hours come March 1. Nor was it enough to sustain the books-and-materials budget, which dropped from $53,000 in a typical year to less than $35,000 this year.
“We can’t keep our collection up to date, and people are beginning to notice,” said Willis, his brow creasing with worry. “Last year was bad, this year is worse, and next year is going to be even harder. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
As Willis fretted in his second-floor office overlooking the Tupelo library floor, dozens of patrons went about their business downstairs. They browsed books, read newspapers, and worked at the numerous computers clustered near the reference desk.
An average 6,800 people use those computers each month. One of them is Lynne Duck, a young Tupelo woman who, on Tuesday, dressed in a business suit as she polished her resume.
“I use the computers to look for employment,” said Duck, who moved here four months ago to be with her ailing mother. “I haven’t seen an impact yet, but this is such a vital asset to the community, it’d be a shame to see it dissipate.”
Nearby, artist Billy Clifton read a newspaper while two Tupelo High School teens used their school-issued laptops, both doing online research for their senior year projects.
“The library needs all the support we can give,” said Clifton, a regular patron since the mid-1970s. “This is the house of knowledge.”
Some, like Marion Linde of Tupelo, do support their local public libraries. Linde fell in love with the Lee County Library when she moved here from Chicago in 1974.
Since then the self-described “omnivorous reader” has donated four to six new books a month. She also provides regular financial contributions.
“It’s been breaking my heart to see the library go through this,” Linde said. “I just think if more people knew, they’d do something to support it.”
Private support – in the form of volunteer hours and monetary donations – might be necessary for libraries to avoid further reductions to hours, staff and services. It’s unlikely the state will reverse its funding drain anytime soon.
“We minimized to a degree the cuts in our budget yesterday, but they’re still going to be pretty severe,” said state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.
Holland said Mississippi’s revenues haven’t exceeded expectations in 17 months, and he doesn’t anticipate a miracle this year or next. The state can’t fund services at the same level, he said, if it lacks the revenues to do it.
“Libraries are part of the common herd of suffering, the litany of woe across the state,” Holland said. “I grieve for them, literally, because I know how important public libraries are.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or email@example.com.