January 29

Farmington library caught in the middle of budget dispute

Selectmen, only two of whom attended the library’s budget presentation, voted to decrease the library budget, while the budget committee voted to increase it.

By Kaitlin Schroeder kschroeder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

The director of the Farmington Public Library says she is disappointed with the board of selectmen’s recommendation that voters decrease the proposed library budget, revealing a disagreement over town spending on outside agencies that is likely to be debated at the annual town meeting.

click image to enlarge

SEEKING INCREASE: Farmington Public Library is at the corner of Academy and High streets. The library, a non-profit organization that contracts with the town, is seeking a budget increase, which has been recommended by the town’s budget committee, but not by selectmen.

Contributed photo

Farmington selectmen voted 4-1 Tuesday to recommend that voters approve a $135,938 library budget, which is $2,800 less than what library officials had requested. The town’s budget committee, however, voted 5-4 to suggest that voters increase the budget to $5,000 more than the library requested.

That’s a $7,800 difference in proposed library spending between the budget committee and selectmen. Voters at town meeting March 24 will have the final say.

Farmington Public Library Director Melanie Taylor Coombs said Wednesday she is disappointed that three selectmen who missed the library’s budget presentation were among the four who recommended the budget cut — Andrew Hufnagel, Josh Bell and Chairman Ryan Morgan.

“We’ve made smart budget decisions and smart staffing,” she said.

Hufnagel said during a meeting Tuesday night that he did not attend the library budget presentation last week because he planned to vote for a decrease in the request no matter what information was presented.

“I didn’t need to see a presentation,” he said. “I didn’t need to have the fluff and the show and the dance. It was too much money for me.”

Hufnagel said town department heads decreased their spending requests, and he can’t justify an increase in what’s considered a contracted service. The selectmen recommended decreases to all department budgets except for police, public works and fire department.

The dispute among Farmington officials is the latest development in a debate over how much town money commit to outside agencies when town is facing steep cuts from the state’s municipal revenue sharing program.

Town Manager Richard Davis said he is projecting $363,489 in state revenue sharing, but won’t know an exact amount until this legislative session is complete.

Selectmen previously voted 3-2 to remove the option of voters funding two nonprofit groups: the American Red Cross and Safe Voices, a domestic violence education and advocacy group.

Selectmen Dennis Pike and Jessica Berry were defeated in recommendations to increase the library budget and to recommend the original request.

Budget committee member Betty Jespersen told the three selectmen who were not at the library’s presentation that they should not make the recommendation without all the information.

“They gave an exhaustive, thorough presentation and none of the three of you attended ... it was just a great explanation of how the community uses the facility,” she said.

Bell and Morgan said they had to work late and regretted not being able to attend the library’s presentation.

One of the reasons the budget can’t be trimmed further, Coombs said, is because use of the building has increased 25 percent over the last five years and there were about 30,000 visitors last year.

“Our message was very clear that in an economic downturn the demand for our services goes up,” she said. “Our demographics are largely families with young children and seniors. The services we’re providing are for those most in need.”

If the voters approve the decrease, she isn’t sure where cuts would be made.

“We can’t just keep providing extended services and cut the budget,” she said.

The library seeks other outside revenue, but Coombs said their endowment, grants and donations take a hit in an economic downturn.

She said they didn’t ask the town for several needed capital improvements because they wanted to present a tight budget.

One of the needs is for new carpet. The building is more than 100 years old and when the library renovated in the 1990s, part of the carpet was laid directly on hardwood, which causes the carpet to bubble and sustain damage on hot days.

The library also has to address costly security problems, Coombs said. Trespassers are known to climb on the building and damage the fragile slate roof. Two years ago, someone stuck a teddy bear on a spire on the roof — it remaine there — damaging the newly repaired roof.

She also said books have been stolen, including a set of art books from an area of the large building that is difficult to monitor with limited staff.

Air conditioning was not listed in the budget or under future capital improvements, but Coombs said the book collection gets damaged on days of extreme heat. The library sometimes closes if the temperature remains higher than 90 degrees.

“I didn’t put it in the budget because it could be seen as frivolous. I see it as collection protection, but we try to be budget conscious,” she said.

Maine is unique, Coombs said, because many of the state’s libraries are separate nonprofit organizations and not town departments.

“In most other states you see a county or statewide funding system. Farmington and Maine are kind of an unusual situation, but obviously it’s very cost effective for the town,” she said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 kschroeder@centralmaine.com
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