Apalachicola remains short of balanced budget

A divided city commission wrestled with the Apalachicola budget at a special workshop Tuesday night, with the library taking most of the pounding.

By the end, commissioners were in general agreement to keep millage unchanged, but fell short of a consensus on how to address a nearly $50,000 shortfall that would result if they did so.

Just before the 90-minute meeting was gaveled to a close, City Administrator Lee Mathes, who had already secured about $160,000 in additional cuts from the budget she first unveiled two weeks ago, was asked by Mayor Van Johnson to look for about $48,000 more in savings by the time the first formal budget hearing rolls around Sept. 12.

If Commissioners Mitchell Bartley and Brenda Ash have their way, there will be no rise in ad valorem taxes next year from the current 9.3543 mills. Johnson said he would support a hike in taxes by a half-mill, to 9.8543 mills, while Jimmy Elliott indicated he would back a quarter-mill hike, to 9.6043. Frank Cook was absent from the meeting.

“I don’t see how were going to balance this budget without some sort of budget increase,” said Johnson.

The workshop, which drew a strong contingent of city employees as well as interested citizens, opened with Mathes unveiling a revised budget from the one she first introduced Aug. 17. Included in her revision were several cuts suggested at a second workshop Aug. 24, which included scrapping a proposed $25,000 in funding for Main Street, cutting $20,000 from the $100,000 in annual fees paid for legal services, trimming $3,400 from the fees paid for city planner services, keeping the fireworks budget steady at $7,000, and a number of other smaller cuts that all meant the costs of general operations would go from $592,000 to about $605,000, about $61,000 less than was originally budgeted.

Smaller slices of savings were found for the $631,000 police budget, the $517,000 public works budget and the $61,000 budget for the volunteer fire department. The $106,000 budget for facilities was trimmed back from its original size, mainly due to shifting to the current budget year the $25,000 authorized this summer to cover renovations at the city municipal complex for the Head Start program.

The biggest source of conflict that arose was over the roughly $94,000 budget for the library, which had been trimmed back by about $12,000. Most of that additional savings was due to the new librarian willing to agree to a $42,500 salary rather than $50,000, and a scrapping of the $3,000 appropriation to buy books.

The library budget drew swift opposition from Bartley, who opposed the move to replace part-time librarian Caty Greene, who is retiring this week, with a full-time librarian, Jill Rourke, who has considerable experience in the field as well as a masters of library science degree.

“I don’t think we should hire anybody (new). Go to the same people we have now,” said Bartley. “The library needs to make a sacrifice. Let’s wait until next year and look at hiring then.”

Also opposing the move was William Cox, with the public works department, police officer Ginger Creamer and citizen Bobby Miller, who spoke from the audience. “If we need a librarian fine, but pay the same as last year’s salary,” Cox said.

Robert Lindsley, chair of the library board, rose to defend the budget increase from $67,000 to about $94,0000, stressing the new librarian would be full-time, and that library services, such as copying and faxing, would generate about $6,000 next year.

“Apalachicola is now in the process of going through a major transitional period,” he said, likening it to the change from cotton shipping to timbering to seafood and now to tourism that marked the last two centuries.

“Consider the broad roles this library is going to fill in this community,” Lindsley said. “I would urge you to find some small piece of your budget that you’re investing in the future.”

He spoke highly of the new hire, noting that even before she begins Sept. 1 she’s at work on 10 grants, a subject she’s familiar with in her past library posts. In addition, Lindsley noted that tens of thousands of dollars have been contributed by backers of the new library, set to open in October once the contractor has completed its punch list, and the $25,000 in shelving the city is contributing is fully stocked.

“All we’re asking for is to give us a head start,” he said. “Help has come from local people who believe in what we’re trying to do. You will help generate additional enthusiasm for donations.”

Bartley remained unconvinced. “Why can’t you operate without this librarian?” he asked, suggesting that in an age of smart phones and Googling, a librarian has less of hands-on role than in the past.

“You don’t have to have a librarian to show you how to do it,” he said. “We’re having a rough time, Bob. You may not see it. Why can’t you make a sacrifice for us? For the people who aren’t educated, who aren’t retired on big salaries, I’m talking about 70 and 80 year old people. The library can help too.”

Elliott questioned Lindsley on why it was that the city library was unable to share in the roughly $100,000 that the county system receives each year from the state. Lindsley said library backers have been working on trying to strike a deal with the county to bring the two systems closer together.

“There are agreements we can enter into, and state and federal funds we can tap into,” he said. “All of those things are on our agenda. I believe those funds can be forthcoming but you really need a person able to guide that.”

Lindsley also noted that at a workshop in June, on a roll call vote, city commissioners had given him the go-ahead to advertise for the new librarian, at a salary of between $35,000 and $50,000.

“Based on that workshop I went out and advertised and hired,” he said.

Miller offered a sharp criticism of the commissioners, and urged them to stand firm against what he called “the library cheerleading squad.”

“You (the commission) are taking our money and look what you’ve done with it. What I’ve just witnessed for the last 30 minutes is exactly what got you in trouble the first place. At some point in time you have to say no,” he said. “In a day and age where most cities are getting rid of their libraries, I’m not against the library, I think it should stand on its own.”

He urged the city to sell the Raney House, a move for which the Apalachicola Area Historical Society has expressed support, but it is unclear if and when that could be done. Mathes said the Apalachicola Riverkeeper is among a number of groups which has expressed interest in leasing out the Harbormaster House at the Mill Pond, which used to be rented out for $1,400 a month by the St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Jan Adkins, active with the Friends of the Library group, told commissioners she had written close to 175 letters thanking donors, who have anywhere from $25 to $35,000 towards the library.

“These are going to be perpetual givers,” she said. “There are people looking at this new asset and they’re going to give to that. There are moments in time that you must say yes and put your faith in things.”

Ash said raising taxes, in any amount, would send the wrong message to the community, and urged that alternatives be sought to solve the library funding matter.

In his closing Johnson sent the message that he did not favor many of the sentiments being expressed. “I’m not shocked but it says a lot where we’re at as a community and as people when we start pitting one entity against another,” he said.