Of all the items in the proposed county budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the most hotly debated last month was the financing of the newly constructed library branch in Eastpoint.

At their July 18 budget workshop, the commissioners didn’t have a problem with most all of the operating budget for the county library, with its headquarters in Eastpoint and its branch in Carrabelle..

County Librarian Glenda Ondracek had proposed a roughly 10 percent boost to the libraries’ budget, from nearly $275,000 this year to $303,000 next year.

The hike in retirement costs and other areas were not contested by the commissioners. But they did have a big issue with a rent increase that would amount to about $1,700 more per month, an assumption of covering flood and liability issues, and a possible taking over the entire mortgage obligation from the Friends of the Library. These now amount to about $215,000 for two low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I have a problem with the way this whole thing is going down,” said Commissioner Smokey Parrish. “There had to be some foresight and vision when this whole thing started. It more or less seems to me is that they were going to do this grand thing for the community in Eastpoint, but we had no ability to have design input. We did not agree to fund the library and now we’re looking at mortgage payments.

“The county didn’t obligate itself to build a library,” he said. “The county’s in an economic crisis also. Are they even trying to raise funds now? It’s like the county’s being forced to make these mortgage payments. Now it’s being thrown back to the board to assume all this liability.”

Ellen Ashdown, a spokesman for the Friends group, said after the meeting that the Friends have not asked the county to assume the loan portion of the USDA award, which also included an outright grant of $265,000. 

She said the Friends' “only action with the county so far is the draft of a lease, by attorney Nick Yonclas and County Attorney Michael Shuler. “The Friends are open to discussion of Franklin County ownership of the library and of the property,” Ashdown said.

Discussion of the mortgage dominated the discussion at the budget workshop continuation on July 23.

Shuler said the loans on the project consist of two interest-only promissory notes with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, both with interest at 3.125 percent. The largest of which is $177,850 with the first payment, of $5,600, due March 28, 2014, and after that the annual interest payment is $9,000. The second note is for $37,500, and the first payment also is interest only.

“This note is not a typical bank note,” he said, noting that the USDA has said the county could apply for transferring the notes from the Friends.

“We all agree that rather than pay those kind of monies out, it would become county property. But we didn’t know all this was transpiring,” said Commissioner Cheryl Sanders. “We’re not against the library. We’re just concerned how they went into an agreement.”

Commissioner Noah Lockley took the harshest stance, suggesting that the county stick to its $1,000 a month rental payment, and that the Friends consider selling off portions of the 13-acre tract to raise additional funds. His suggestion was not met with support from his colleagues.

Commissioner Pinki Jackel urged her colleagues not to back off of support for the new library. “If we’re going to be make the payments we might as well own the building,” she said. “We cannot do what you all want us to do without ownership.”

Jackel said the building and site cost $500,000 and is now appraised at $640,000. “We’re kind of boxed in with this library business,” she said. “This is not what we expected but it’s unfortunately what we got. The payment is what it is; we’ve got to figure out a way to work with them on the payment.”

Sanders expressed exasperation, and urged the Friends’ fundraising to continue. It just seems like we got halfway through and are throwing our hands up and asking the taxpayers to pay for it,” she said.

Jackel said the Friends “did not begin this process hoping it would end up this way. They were essentially a product of the circumstances.

“I’m proud for them. I want them to have the very best they can have,” she said, urging the commission not to allow problems to develop with debt repayment. “We’ll let the Friends default on payment to USDA because we wouldn’t fund the library?” she asked. “We have to make it crystal clear that we will not be a party of any other ventures of nonprofit groups who in the end want to turn it back over to the county.

“The Friends have done a good job, I’m not going to beat up on the Friends. They have poured their heart and soul into it. They have begged and begged and begged for money and basically people don’t have money to give to those projects anymore.”

She added that was not in favor of using capital outlay money to pay the debt off.

Jackel also noted that since the new site is on private property, inmates are prevented from working on maintenance items that they would normally do on county-owned property.

“We need to get it all under the board control and cut down these requests,” said Parrish.

“I’m concerned about indebting the people of the county for 30 years,” said Sanders. “And the other issue, when this library first started being built, there was a lot of opposition about the area, the proposed wetlands. If we take it over as a board and we go in there and pave that parking lot and it causes a violation with DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), where do we stand on that?”