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Ellsworth’s library will still have to shrink its budget for the coming year, but not as much as it expected it would have to last month.
In a compromise reached Thursday, the Ellsworth City Council and trustees of the city-owned library agreed to tap into $70,000 in unspent funds to offset a decrease in the amount of property tax revenue the city is devoting to the library’s annual budget.
The $70,000 — money raised for the library in recent years that has not been spent — will help offset a reduction of $134,161 in property tax revenue from the city to support the library.
The library’s budget for the 2019-20 year was nearly $700,000, of which nearly $600,000 was funded by the city through property taxes. With Thursday’s compromise, the library’s budget this year will be $642,372, of which $461,872 will be funded through property taxes, not including the $70,000 from the city’s fund balance.
Last month, after library officials said they would ask the city for $34,161 less in direct funding for the current fiscal year, which started July 1, the council said it would reduce that amount by another $100,000, for a total cut of $134,161. The proposed cut caught library officials by surprise and prompted an outcry from some library supporters who said the cut was too steep.
The cut also put Ellsworth among a small number of Maine towns — another being Blue Hill — making steep cuts to library budgets amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Councilors justified the cut by saying that the library serves patrons from more than a dozen surrounding towns, but that too much of the burden of funding the library is placed on Ellsworth property taxpayers. Surrounding towns, which added together contribute around $40,000 each year, need to take on a greater share of the library’s budget, they said.
For the past few years, council members have urged library officials to find other ways to generate revenue, saying that the impact of the library budget on city taxes has to be reduced. Toward that end, library officials developed a plan to start raising money from surrounding towns on a per-capita basis. Residents of towns that decline to pay an annual subsidy to the library would be charged $25 for an annual library card.
That plan, which had been scheduled to go into effect July 1, was delayed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and now is scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1. The library closed for a few months and the trustees’ efforts to talk to officials in neighboring towns about those towns’ financial support of the library were also put on hold.
“It was going to take a year or two before we knew if this plan was going to work,” Trustee Anne Lusby told the council Thursday at a budget workshop. “But then we met the perfect storm.”
Still, council members reiterated their frustration with the lack of progress in getting nearby towns to contribute more money.
“Those towns are laughing at us,” Councilor Marc Blanchette said. “Their residents can come here and get library services for much cheaper than the Ellsworth taxpayer.”
Councilor Heather Grindle suggested that if non-Ellsworth residents shouldered their fair share for funding the library, they should pay $77 a year for a library card.
“I’d like to see this pressure directed at surrounding towns,” Grindle said, referring to feedback the council has received from library officials and some supporters to spare the library from large budget cuts. “It’s all directed at us right now.”
The trustees countered that they have developed a plan to get more funding from surrounding towns but — especially given the delays caused by the pandemic — they need more time to pursue it. If the library budget is cut too sharply too fast, they said, it could undercut the library’s argument for why surrounding towns should contribute more.
“We obviously need to do more,” Trustee Craig MacDonald told the council. “I hope we can reach a point where you can understand we are trying really hard.”
Dale Hamilton, chairman of the council, said Friday that the library’s operating budget of $642,372 for the coming year is more in keeping with the library’s actual expenses the past two fiscal years, when the library’s costs have come in under budget by an average of $60,000.
“Through a process of aligning the current year budget to prior year actual activity, we believe that the proposed budget can be reduced by $30,000,” Hamilton said.
Amy Wisehart, the library director, said after the meeting the compromise is better than the situation the library faced last month.
“I’m glad that the city council remained open to community feedback about the value of the library to the Ellsworth community and came up with an alternate solution,” she said. “I hope that councilors will continue to be open to working with library trustees on the continued funding diversification efforts.”
She said trustees have not yet figured out how to cut an additional $30,000 from the budget library trustees proposed last month, but that she believes it can be done without reducing staff or hours.
“But it will be a very tight budget for us,” she said.