The Cecil County Public Library (CCPL) is going to cut back on their grand opening plans for the new North East branch as a result of an operating budget cut from County Executive Danielle Hornberger’s proposed 2022 budget. Library Director Morgan Miller said that the cut represents an anomaly in the state.
“In terms of other Maryland library systems, I’m not hearing of any that have been cut,” said Miller at the board of library trustees meeting on April 8. “I have certainly heard of flat funding in other places including Harford County, but so far, I know that Cecil is probably the only one to receive a cut of this significance.”
CCPL requested an operating budget increase of 4.16% for fiscal year 2022, but the decrease of 5.7% or $366,000.
CCPL spends around 80% of their budget on personnel. Miller said that though the county included Cost of Living Adjustment and merit salary increases for departmental employees they did not include those same benefits for library staff.
North East will open with 15 staff, instead of the 28 the system originally had planned. There will be no Sunday hours at any locations.
The new branch will be the first new library in Cecil County for 13 years. The 33,000 square foot facility will be the home of the new library headquarters. The current headquarters in Elkton will be renovated and improved. However, the new building leaves them with 100,000 square feet of buildings to maintain, compared to last year’s 60,000 square feet, with less money. The increased space means the library will not have enough custodians to maintain the increased space.
“We did not get the custodians that we asked for North East,” said Miller. “That has a big impact on our ability to operate, maintain facilities. And that will start to show.”
The total operating costs for the new branch, planned to be fully funded in fiscal year 21 prior to the pandemic, was set to be $1,200,000. By the end of last year’s budget cycle, the system received less than a quarter of that initial figure, creating an operating deficit of $1,000,000, the budget cut made that deficit worse, so CCPL will have an overall operating deficit of over $1,600,000.
“Cutting libraries during an economic recovery is like cutting hospitals during a pandemic,” said Steven Pearson, the chair of the library board of trustees. “We want to be there for our community, but this budget severely hinders our ability to do so.”
The CCPL, the only organization in Maryland outside of the National Aquarium to win the prestigious “National Medal,” offers the only free access to broadband in the entire county. Cecil County Finance Director James Appel said the cut does not contradict Hornberger’s goal to increase access to the internet since she hopes to provide access directly to people’s homes.
He argued that the library is actually seeing a funding increase of $800,000 if you include the money the county is spending to build the new library branch. However, library staff and board members argued that the operating budget and capital budgets should be considered as separate items.
“If you look at the school systems budget and their conversation around that, they say nothing about the new Chesapeake City Elementary School,” said Phyllis Kilby, a former member of the board of county commissioners and a current member of the library board of trustees. “They don’t consider that as part of the board of education budget. So this was a very selective cut, and very selective messaging which was very deceptive.”
Appel said that for many citizens, the tax cut was worth reduced funding for the library.
“I’m pretty sure 90% of Cecil County residents would prefer for us not to raise taxes then to staff the library with more people,” said Appel.
Hornberger had previously expressed skepticism about the libraries, writing in an op-ed published in the Whig in 2020 that she doubted that CCPL was worth $6,000,000 of funding a year, when compared to other funding priorities like increasing salaries for police officers or expanding emergency services. Miller said she was concerned about the administration saying libraries are not a priority, and argued that the citizenry disagrees.
“I think it is going to take a strong sustained response from the community to demand reinstated funding,” said Miller.
Appel said that the library had reduced operating costs last year due to COVID-19, so the system could have been able to save money when all their buildings were closed.
“We write them a check. What they do is up to them,” said Appel. “They should have been able to save a lot of money over this pandemic because all the libraries were closed. They should have enough in their coffers for when they reopen.”
Miller said though library buildings were closed, that librarians kept working to provide services during the pandemic.
“Though our doors may have been closed to the public at various points, librarians were busy working behind those doors to connect people to critical online and virtual resources like free internet, printing and Wi-Fi, digital books and services, tutoring, contactless materials pick-up and delivery, and job and business help,” said Miller.