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Kanawha library considering layoffs and closing branches

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha County public library may be laying off employees, closing branches and reducing services and operating hours in the coming months, among a slew of other drastic measures to shrink its operating budget.

Other changes will take effect immediately: Sunday openings are discontinued beginning this week, and the library's new building project is being put on hold.

Michael Albert, president of the library's board of directors, stressed that most these measures are far from implementation, but the prospect of these and other drastic measures is not unreasonable, he said, given the library's dire financial straits.

Last week, a state Supreme Court decision ruled that a 1957 law forcing the Kanawha County school board to help fund the library through its property tax is unconstitutional, ending a decade-long legal battle. Now, library officials are scrambling to come up with that $3 million -- nearly 40 percent of their annual operating budget.

"We can be angry, we can be irate, we can be upset, we can be depressed -- but it is our job to move forward," Albert said. "We will do this in a sane and rational approach ... We want to move forward in a serious manner."

The board's plan, which Albert called "skeletal" at this stage, just four days after the court handed down its decision, includes a number of possible new funding streams, in addition to the cuts.

The board is considering asking county and city officials for help, whether on a temporary or permanent basis and proposing a library-specific excess levy to the voters. Officials will also comb operating budget lines to reduce expenditures, and work with the library's fundraising arm to increase donations.

Officials also plan to solicit the Legislature and the Governor's office to develop a potential solution at the state level.

The Legislature tried to remedy the situation once before, in 2007, by allocating more state money to school boards to make up for the money they're expected to turn over to libraries.

But because funding was increased for all school boards -- not just those expected to fund their local libraries -- the library-funding boards concluded the system still wasn't fair and the courts eventually agreed.

Jim Withrow is an attorney for the school board and a member of the library's board of directors (he excuses himself from lawsuit-related decisions).

"Our beef has never been with the library," Withrow said in a phone interview Tuesday.

"It seems to me that this would be a great opportunity among folks who use libraries to actually get a more comprehensive fix and get a more stable, secure funding source through the state. That's my own personal opinion."

There's still a chance the Kanawha County school board could decide to continue funding Kanawha County libraries - the court ruled that the school board can't be forced to help fund the library, but it could still choose to do so of its own accord.

It's not a novel idea: Of West Virginia's 97 public library systems, 81 receive some funding from their local department of education. And since only nine counties are subject to the law funneling library funding through school boards, the vast majority of that funding is offered up voluntarily.

Funding levels in those counties are notably lower than in counties where the law applies, though, and Pete Thaw, president of the Kanawha County school board, said it's worth noting all the effort the school board has put in -- two lawsuits over ten years -- to extract itself from such an arrangement with the library.

"We spent all this time and all this money on this case, to try to rectify this and keep the money for education," Thaw said. "If we keep it this is going to be a wonderful source of funds for us."

Among other things, it could help the county avoid a $4.5 million budget shortfall it's projected to have at the start of the next fiscal year.

Board members will discuss their position at their next meeting in March. Any decision will be brought to the school board for a vote.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/ShayMaunz. ;;;


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