Future of the Library Task Force
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
Faced with significant local funding cuts in mid 2010 that threatened the closure of nearly ½ of its library locations, the Library engaged citizens and independent towns to create both a short term sustainability plan and a vision for the Future of the Library. Thirty-nine recommendations are now under implementation.
In the 4th quarter of 2010, the Library faced a sudden and significant budget reduction ($2million) in local funding that required the layoff of 24% of its active staff (120 people) in addition to reducing salaries of its remaining staff by as much as 20%, shortening service hours by 39%, reducing book budgets by 50% and cutting other expenses in order to balance the budget by year end. An initial projection of a 50% reduction in FY11 County funding was even more potentially debilitating in its long-term consequences as widely reported by the media. Library Trustees were faced with deciding which ½ of 24 library locations might need to be closed. Relationships between the County and the Library were very strained. Citizens were concerned with how and where their children would be able to access school/homework resources, how they would be able to use library services for job searching, or what the decrease in computer access would mean for many. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library serves all of Mecklenburg County, including Charlotte and six independent municipalities, with 90% of its funding provided by the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners. The City of Charlotte provides $2500 in annual funding support, per a 1903 agreement, but the remaining towns provide no funding support. However the Library is viewed as critical to the quality of life and as an educational asset --to both many Charlotte neighborhoods and the independent town centers. With citizens, as well as city and town leaders, all rallying to keep their local branches open, we knew we must revisit the manner in which the library system could be structured and sustained for current and future community needs. Such examination would need the input, creativity, leadership and collective discussion and recommendations of an unbiased citizen-based task force.
Uncertainty about funding impedes responsible library planning and operation, disrupts lives, discourages private investment, and burdens governmental decision makers. Realizing that it is very difficult to re-open a library location once it is closed –as leases terminate and buildings find new tenants or a building must be sold because funds aren’t there to adequately maintain while closed for business - Library Trustees structured a short-term sustainability plan for FY11. This plan kept 20 of 24 library locations open (at reduced service hours) and allowed a year for a Task Force to study and make recommendations for a more sustainable future. The short-term sustainability plan required, for the first time, buy-in for funding from the City of Charlotte as well as towns within Mecklenburg Library. It also required the Library to explore and create new business and operation models, including expanded use of volunteers during FY11. Citizens, through a 17-member Future of the Library Task Force, were asked to thoroughly study and make recommendations about the future of the Library in four areas: 1) The Library’s core services and optimum footprint to best serve the community; 2) The best delivery system for library services at this point in the twenty-first century; 3) A stable funding model that will serve to ensure the Library’s long-term viability; and 4) The best governance/organizational structure to move the Library forward. Their work had to be completed by Spring of 2011 in order for any recommendations to be considered as part of the FY12 County budgeting process. Critical to the groups’ success was an effective leader – whom we found in Jim Woodward, retired chancellor of UNC-Charlotte and the preliminary research and process outline that was delivered by a task force design team led by UNC-Charlotte’s Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs.
Eight-seven citizens volunteered to serve as one of the Task Force members. After the application process, 16 objective and talented people joined the Task Force chairman on a six-month commitment. At the end of their own research and discussions about the four focus areas, the Task Force presented 39 specific recommendations within an overall 369-page report in March 2011. By May 2011, a 6-member workgroup made up of 3 Library Trustees and 3 County Commissioners had reviewed the total report and unanimously approved the majority of recommendations with only minor revisions. The report was adopted in Spring 2011 as the working model for change at the Library, with staff immediately beginning to work on its implementation. One of the most significant recommendations from the Task Force, that impacted the Library’s FY12 budget, was a recommendation on funding levels – meant to begin to stabilize the Library’s funding. Their recommendation was to use a per-capita funding approach based on funding levels of 13 peer communities. The peer communities established during the Task Force study were not chosen by the Library, but were instead chosen by the Chamber of Commerce and County as communities seen as competitors for businesses and/or communities for their bench-marking purposes. FY11 data showed that the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library was funded $1.8-2.4M less than these 13 peer communities, resulting in the Library receiving $2M in additional funding for its FY12 budget. Each year, a data recalculation will be provided to the County Manager as input for budget recommendations. On March 21, 2012, Jim Woodward and 2 Task Force members (now Library Trustees), gave a one-year update to County Commissioners. To date, 35 of 39 recommendations are completed or underway – a great statement about how far the Library has come and a great example of civic involvement at work.