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Posted: May 25, 2011 12:30 a.m.

User fees for Newton libraries?

Gabriel Khouli/

Libraries have long been viewed as vital cornerstones of communities, a necessary public service, but as Newton County remains mired in a near-lifeless economy, county officials believe the time of free library service may be over.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners is considering implementing user fees for libraries, which could come in the form of a library pass or individual fees for the use of the Internet, material rentals or classes.

Commissioner Mort Ewing said he supports user fees for any services not mandated to be provided by state law, including libraries. While all taxpayers pay for the construction of libraries, as well as parks, reservoirs and landfills, Ewing said he did not believe that all taxpayers should be on the hook for yearly maintenance. Those who use the facilities should pay to maintain them.

"The library falls in those services, as does recreation and others, that the county has in the past volunteered to provide...," Ewing said Tuesday. "I have long supported a fee system."

But the most frequent users may be the least likely to be able to pay. Usage of the library has increased as the economy has declined and many people depend on the library's computer, Internet service and employee's guidance in order to create resumes and apply for jobs.

According to the library, the Covington branch had 440,319 total visitors in fiscal year 2007, and it's expecting 564,000 visitors by the end of the current fiscal year.

Interim Library Director Bob Halcums said librarians teach classes on subjects including beginning Internet and email, how to search for jobs online, how to build a resume and how to interview for jobs. Volunteers also assist with job hunting. The library also offers books and DVDs on how to use Microsoft Office products and other software used in the business world.

Commissioner Nancy Schulz said many constituents have told her they use the library for job seeking, but she said a user fee wouldn't have to be prohibitive. She said many Internet cafes charge a small fee to use their service and she would support a reasonable sum.

"The fees need to be affordable, and we all have to make choices in life," Schulz said. "I've been in Third World countries where you have an Internet cafe, and the fees are very reasonable. They're not as much as a lump sum payment for a computer or monthly payment for Internet service to the home."

The library's operating budget for the current fiscal year is $1.99 million, but it expected to generate only $191,285 in-house, through various late fees, fees for meeting room rental, proctoring and notarizing and various donations.

The state is expected to provide $306,154 for some salaries and materials, a decline of $47,000 from the current funding level.

Covington provides $15,000, but voted not to increase its participation this year, while the Newton County School System chips in with $2,400. That leaves the bulk of the funding to be provided by the county, nearly $1.12 million.

Few governments in Georgia have been hit as severely by the economic downturn as Newton County, which is heavily dependent on property taxes, and hence high property values, for the bulk of its revenues. But house prices fell again this fiscal year, meaning the county budget may decline further from its $46.3 million total.

The board imposed a10.9 millage increase last year, but still had to trim nearly $2 million from the budget. Commissioners Tim Fleming and Ewing did not vote for that increased rate and don't appear likely to support one this year.

The Porter Memorial Branch opened in January on Ga. Highway 212 in the western part of the county. The library was given $300,000 to operate from January to June 30, but in its proposed budget, the county has not considered raising that funding, meaning the Porter branch will have to operate for a full year at $300,000. It remains to be seen whether the library board will choose to cut from the Covington branch to aid the Porter branch, or simply further limit Porter's hours and days of operation.

The library system has been able to stave off service cuts by taking from its reserve accounts, which were built up in better years. However, as with the county, the library's reserve accounts are beginning to dwindle.

The shelves of the Porter branch remain only partially filled, as the library has 14,680 items, instead of the 40,000 it had hoped to open with. The library was built with impact fee money, fees paid when land is developed for houses or businesses, but as those dried up, so did money to fully stock the branch.

The Covington branch has 145,000 items, but Halcums said if the library had funding it would like to add 25,000 items.

So far, the library has managed to avoid cutting employees, and it hopes to retain its 19 full-time and seven part-time employees. Many of the employees are true "librarians", which necessitates having a master's degree in library or information science.

Chairwoman Lois Upham said it's important to also realize that the library provides access to databases and online services, and is a member of the Georgia PINES system, which allows users to request materials from other PINES libraries.

"A library that is closed serves no one. If our budget were restored to the level prior to the cuts we would like to expand our hours to better serve the residents," Halcums said. "Once a library is open it needs current and accurate materials that people want to check out and read. When people come to the library to use a computer, they deserve to have speedy Internet access with newer machines and not "out of order" signs on out-of-date equipment. Full funding is our biggest need to meet the needs of our citizens."

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