Board members, staff, and patrons of the Blue Ridge Regional Libraries (BRRL) on Monday made an emotional plea to the Henry County Board of Supervisors for increased local funding.
Of the eight speakers at the county’s public hearing on its budget, seven supported the library’s request an additional $39,427 from the county, for a total of $774,968, or a 5.36 percent increase over the system’s current county funding, according to BRRL Director Rick Ward.
He said the libraries have received level funding from the county since 2019, and added that the requested increase was 0.05 percent of the county’s total proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Ward said the additional funding was needed “so we can give our hardworking staff a raise.”
With inflation hovering between 6 and 8 percent, not only is the library struggling in terms of what it can purchase and what it can afford, but staff are struggling to make a living as well, he said.
With the minimum wage rising to $12 per hour in January, Ward said “that’s going to put us in a crunch,” leading to salary compression wherein someone who has worked at the library for nearly 20 years could be making nearly the same as a new hire. “That makes it difficult to keep good, hardworking people.
“We noticed that Henry County was able to give their staff a 5 percent raise this year, there’s a proposed 6 percent raise in their budget for them next year, and we would just ask that you increase our contribution so we can give our staff a 5 percent raise as well.”
Ward made a similar presentation to the Martinsville City Council during its May 3 budget work session. At that meeting, he noted that in the decade he has been director of BRRL, the library has never received funding for a cost-of-living increases.
Ward requested $13,142 from the city to address salary issues, which he said was a 4.45 percent increase over last year’s contribution and 0.02 percent of the city’s total proposed budget. He said he made the same request of Patrick County which, like Martinsville, only has one library branch while Henry County has three.
He explained to both the city and county that the total cost needed to achieve the 5 percent wage increases was divided between the three localities BRRL serves based on the number of branches in each locality.
Margaret Caldwell, of the Collinsville District, who sits on the library division’s board to trustees, said funding from those localities comprise 74 percent of the library budget, with Henry County shouldering the majority share at 41 percent.
“Seventy-four percent of the budget means we cannot give our people a raise unless the local governments give us an increase. We just cannot do it.”
“You may recall that, ever since Ben Franklin started the first library in Philadelphia, the locality has had the responsibility of the library system,” she said. “You see the library, I think, as a semi-outside agency. But I say that our library employees are your employees the same as the school system. You just get a break because the state and federal government give a little bit to make up the difference. The library is an extension of your educational system,” she said.
“If you sat in one of our libraries and observed what our librarians do to help out the citizens of Martinsville and Henry County, from infants and preschoolers all the way up through senior citizens like myself, you would see that they are some of the hardest working people you have ever seen. I implore you to support this increase,” Caldwell said, and encouraged the board to “look ahead to next year as well because, as Rick has already said, our people are behind in terms of getting an equitable, fair salary for the work they actually do.”
Christal Holloway, of Bassett, said that her family, including her homeschooled children, love their local library and its staff.
“For us, the library is more than just a place that has books. Our library has many activities for the kids, like movie time, LEGO night, and many others to keep the children engaged. Story time is one of our favorites,” she said. “The library staff has played a big part in my children learning and loving to read books.”
Holloway’s 9-year-old granddaughter, Heaven, read a statement she wrote, clutching her spiral-bound notebook in her hands as she told the supervisors the library has helped her love reading and books.
“I love story time with Ms. Vicki,” she said. “She reads books and shows me how to make crafts. We make friends and have fun there. Ms. Karen helps me find books that I like, and I love them and my library.”
“I, just like the ones in front of me, am really beginning you to consider” increasing the library’s funding, said Sherry Vestal, who represents the Blackberry District on the library board.
As a grandmother, Vestal said she gets to see first-hand the wonderful things the libraries do for children in the community, but particularly in Bassett, where she lives. “It’s wonderful for all the children to be able to interact and learn all they can possibly learn at the library. The staff there are so accommodating and wonderful.”
Vestal said she told her sister-in-law, who just retired as head librarian at Northwestern State University, what BRRL employees make, and “she said, ‘oh my goodness, that’s like poverty level.’”
Amy Bunn, of the Iriswood District, and the branch librarian at the Ridgeway library, said she did not intend to speak, “but if a 9-year-old can come up and speak for us, I think we can manage to speak for ourselves as well.
“My salary is not fantastic. It is a livable salary. I do make less than most people with Master’s degrees, but I’m okay with that. I love my job and what I do. What’s hurting me right now is that the Ridgeway branch library” is run by two part-time staff and herself, Bunn said.
When hiring part-time staff, “I need somebody that can do children’s programming, order books, research on the internet, help patrons at the computer, and is trustworthy, because they’re working with money. We do have a lot of times that the library is covered alone, so they have to work independently as well.
“When it comes to all this, when I’m trying to hire somebody for this job, I can offer them $11 an hour. Minimum wage. And that hurts because the only way I can keep the staff I have is to find somebody who’s really dedicated to the idea of the library. I have the staff right now, but there’s always things in life that come up (that incur additional expenses) and they have to go elsewhere,” Bunn said.
When that happens, “everything gets torn up … It’s just so frustrating, and it’s just going to get worse over the years,” she said, referring to an earlier comment from Caldwell, who noted that library staff, particularly those at entry-level positions, could make more money working at Walmart or McDonalds.
“I have respect for the work those people are doing at Walmart. I know it’s not an easy job, but I’m asking for a certain level of skills too that the people stocking the shelves at Walmart don’t need to have, and when I can pay $2 less an hour than they do, it’s not right. It’s not fair.”
Expounding on another comment made by Caldwell about how the library is perceived as an entity separate from the county, Bunn said, “it’s easy to see us as once removed,” but she said she was speaking to someone who told her she would be getting a raise because they heard about the raises planned for county employees and assumed she was included.
“I said, ‘no, we’re not,’ but that’s what the people see us as, so I want to remind you of that, and that we are working on behalf of Henry County every day in our jobs. We love what we do, but don’t ask us to sacrifice a living wage for that.”
“We are the heart of our community,” said Karen Barley, the branch manager for the Bassett library, who told the board that librarians help patrons with everything from making copies to filling out online job or Social Security applications. For the past 4-5 years, the library has tracked the number of jobs in the area it has helped people get.
“We are here in numbers because we are very afraid,” said library chairman Betsy Haskins. “When people come to look at Martinsville and Henry County, they want to know where the library is, they want to go see it, they want to see what is offered … it’s a positive for all localities to have a strong library system that is successful and that responds to the needs of the community,” she said, adding that “libraries serve everybody from the smallest children to the oldest person” and that “the library is not the one that I grew up with 50 years ago. It is a multi-purpose entity, and if they’re not doing it now and it’s something that you want or need, they will be on it. I can guarantee that.”
At the end of the public hearing, supervisor Garrett Dillard, of the Iriswood District, asked county staff, “if we later see that we want to propose changes, is that possible or does that have to take place at this very moment?”
County Administrator Tim Hall said staff generally took direction from the board the night of the public hearing, with the goal of adopting the budget at the next regular meeting, which is scheduled for May 24.
“Any changes under the total (advertised) amount that you wish us to bring you that day, we can do that, but the way the schedule is set up, we’re to adopt in this month, appropriate in June, (and the budget becomes) effective July 1. So, the window is narrow,” Hall said.
“If you wish to stay below the overall advertised budget and direct us to fill a gap from some other piece of the budget, we can certainly bring that to you. The overall number is pretty much what it is unless you want to go higher than that, then basically we start this whole process over” with a new budget presentation and new public hearing, he added.
“Once we get a budget, the budget’s set. If you change the budget, you’re going to have to take from somebody,” such as the Sheriff’s Office, Public Safety, the school division, or another entity, Vice Chairman Joe Bryant, of the Collinsville District, said. “You’ve got to take from somebody to fill in that void we’re talking about.”
He acknowledged that “the library group tonight has made an excellent point in that they need more money. I don’t know what we can do, but I’m going to take a look at it. It’s hard to change the budget when the budget’s set. It just is,” Bryant added.
Dillard said he felt like the experience was akin to speaking with a telemarketer in that “you hear it and you have to respond to it instantly.”
“You’ve had it (the budget) since we presented it,” Hall replied.
“But we just heard them tonight,” Dillard responded.
Hall noted that certain contingency amounts are built into the budget.
Supervisor Ryan Zehr, of the Ridgeway District, said there is $100,000 in the general contingency and $150,000 in the fuel contingency. He said should the board use contingency funds to cover the additional request from the library, and then surpass the amount held in contingency during the fiscal year, funds from reserves could be used to cover the overages.
“I would be open to doing that because they have had level funding for many years,” Zehr said.
Supervisor Debra Buchanan, of the Horsepasture District, asked Ward if he had presented to Martinsville and Patrick County already. Ward responded that he had, but he said he had not yet received a response from Martinsville. Patrick County agreed only to level funding after first attempting to cut library funding by 11 percent. However, he said, he could return to ask for additional funds.
“So, what you’re actually needing is $65,711 over all three jurisdictions?” Buchanan asked. Ward confirmed the number was accurate.
Chairman Jim Adams, of the Blackberry District, noted that salaries are a recurring cost.
According to Hall, Finance Director Darrell Jones suggested the “cleanest way” to fund the library’s request, should the board choose to do so, would be to adopt the budget as presented. Then when the budget goes into effect on July 1, direct staff to take a certain amount of money out of contingency and put it toward a specific line item.
“That’s the cleanest way to do it. So, if there is some consideration for doing that, we will bring this to you at the May meeting to adopt as presented, then you can give us the caveat that on July 1, you want us to transfer X amount of money from whatever pot to whatever pot. That’s the cleanest and most efficient way to do it.”
“That will give us time to find out what Patrick County and the City of Martinsville are going to do,” said supervisor Tommy Slaughter, of the Reed Creek District.
Martinsville City Council members recently agreed to fund half of the library’s requested increase, or $6,571, with the caveat that, if Henry and Patrick counties agree to fully fund their portions, the city would follow suit.