Good beginnings emerge for library

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 21, 2005

By Julian Helms

The Selma Times-Journal

Monday night, a cross-section of Selma met at the Selma-Dallas County Public Library to generate ideas about how to pay for the library’s utilities, how to maintain and possibly increase library services, and how to guarantee the sustainability of the city organization.

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Mayor James Perkins Jr. and Head Librarian Becky Nichols hosted the gathering, which included attendees State Sen. Hank Sanders, Dallas County Commissioner Curtis Williams, Storyteller Kathryn Tucker-Windham, City Council President George Evans and Councilwoman Jean Martin.

Nichols opened the gathering in a prayer of gratitude for “the incredible blessings that are ours” and sought “peace and possibility within the open hearts of every person here.”

At issue: The library’s utility bills.

At the start of the year, “we had the city on our backs saying ‘Balance the budget,'” Perkins said. “We decided to cut where we could. We had teams developing different strategies for budget reduction. We didn’t ask for more taxes. I don’t want to focus on the history – I want to focus on where we go from here.”

“Our gas and power bills are astronomical,” Nichols said. “We’re looking for a way to solve this problem so we can move on in an uninterrupted way.”

When asked by Charles Rasheed how much money was needed to keep the library running, Nicholas answered, “We have two bills we’re not used to paying – Alabama Power at $4,000 a month and Alagasco at $2,000 a month.

“We’re going into the bone of what keeps the library going to pay these bills,” Nichols said. “We’re paying the power bill with money we normally spend on books and technology.”

An expansion of the library undertaken by the city increased the size of the building to 25,000 square feet. The space maintains climate to protect the documents stored inside.

Nichols stayed by a board near Perkins, jotting down the community’s ideas to generate funding.

One attendee said a yearly fundraiser – January through March – to promote the library could work.”I have a friend in Detroit that raises $50,000 every year for public schools using this discount card. Organizations sell discount cards for fast food through the community; the money raised would pay the bills.”

Coach Pat Knight asked if Probate Judge Johnny Jones was still unwilling to increase funding to the library. He went on to cite community involvement in 1969 to generate funding to build a track.

“The county commission took on 50 percent of the costs and the city council paid the other 50 percent,” Knight said. “This was about $40,000 each at the time.

The track has brought millions of dollars to this town.”

Perkins clarified that “a delegation of citizens were not engaged to approach city or county. This is our first meeting.”

Nichols noted that the county “gave the library $5,000 for the celebration of their centennial. They’ve allowed the increase in funding to stay.”

Another attendee said, “I think city and county should go half and half for the costs. The service the library renders to the county, the county should provide for.”

Dallas County operates a budget about a third smaller than the city of Selma’s.

Another asked: “Are there any statistics as to how many users live in the city or county?”

Nichols said that while every time a book is checked out, the library can track the location of the user, more than 200 people every week come in from schools and other programs who aren’t tracked.

“How many people get something out of a sermon? There’s no real way to know,” Nichols said to general laughter.

Williams said the county tries its best to look at resources.

“We must start the year with a balanced budget,” Williams said. “The county commission is willing to get with the mayor and the council and see if we can get together to see if we can’t hammer something out. The library is very beneficial to all of us. This is a win-win. It’s a season for giving. If we can set aside all other problems to solve this problem – without anything else on the agenda – we can get there. Any way possible, as soon as possible.”

Perkins receptively said, “We’ll have that meeting here.”

Nichols: “Tomorrow?”

“I’m glad to hear that myself,” Evans said. “This should be a great meeting.”

An attendee asked: “Is this the consensus that these two entities are responsible for this jewel in our crown?” A general agreement that city and county needed to provide “bedrock” support of the city library buzzed about the room.

Nichols provided history.

“Carnegie gave the land and the city built the library. It was a solely city entity,” Nichols said. “This portion of the building was added on by the city.

We are a part of city government and we get our funding from grants, private donations, funding from the city, county, and state.”

Nichols added that the library had operated with the same $563,000 budget for the past 11 years and while they had done well, the added burden of utility costs was more than the decade-old budget could bear.

An attendee said, “It’s absurd to think this library’s operated on the same budget for the last decade. It’s obscene to make them responsible for the utilities.”

The mayor and the commissioner sought a meeting date.

Williams provided that “this is a critical issue and we need to make a move as soon as possible.”

The mayor concurred, seeking a meeting “within the next two weeks.”

Sanders asked that the issue solve both “the immediate short term problem and the long-term problem. It’s a problem that can’t be solved on the state level.

The moment you solve it on a state level, everyone floods in. I’m willing to help on the short-term solution, but I hope the city and county will come together to work things out.”

Other sound ideas proposed were a Library Foundation existing to provide grant writing for the library.

“The city has a grant writing foundation,” said the attendee. “Does the city have time allocated to write grants for the library? I think city and county should write grants for the library. The Library Foundation could be set up to generate private funds, as well as work with the city and county.”

“I like that. Good thinking, good partnerships,” Nichols said, “I target $30,000 a year that I personally try to raise.”

Perkins asked Sanders “is there a way school boards could contribute to libraries because of use?”

Sanders, who, chairs the Senate committee that oversees the state’s education budget, said, “I’d have to check with our attorneys. I really don’t know.”

Evans encouraged that the proposed meeting work specifically to raise $80,000.

“If we don’t have that when we leave, I’m not sure what’s going to be the alternative.”

Hopes for increased hours and computer equipment were aired. The Rev. Worford said, “There are objective realities that have to be dealt with. When the library closes at five o’clock, there are school kids who don’t have computer access. Just staying open another two hours – until seven – would be a great help.”

The mayor asked for resolution of immediate need and “that we stay together and deal with this issue of long-term sustainability. Let’s consider a Foundation, talk to our school boards … so we have not just enough to operate on, but enough to grow on.”

“In 75 years,” Coach Pat Knight said, “this has been the most successful meeting I’ve ever attended in Selma. This wasn’t about race. We met as a community, together, to accomplish something.”

Nichols was able to conclude the session referencing her Sunday school’s study of Acts. The author talks about doors of faith being opened and tonight I’m able to see how that works.

A door is being opened – we have to have the courtesy to step through it.”