Libraries should not be cut

To the Fulton County Commission:

We are deeply disturbed about the library budget cuts you recently implemented.

In 2008, we were asked to vote “yes” to a $275 million bond referendum to achieve “enhanced, exceptional, equitable library service (because) current facilities have proven to be too small in size and not ideally located.”

In good faith, we encouraged everyone we knew to vote yes. Pursuant to the bond issue, the county has made progress with construction of eight desperately needed new libraries and two expansions. Some of the libraries are expected to be completed this year but, like the currently operating libraries, will be open only on a limited basis.

Six years later, we occupy the same “too small, not ideally located facilities” — except they are open one-third fewer hours now with drastically reduced staff. You have chosen to reduce the libraries’ budget in an amount equal to the amount of the referendum, thereby displacing the citizen-authorized (through the referendum) library monies to be used for other, non-library Fulton County expenses.

This is unconscionable.

The libraries are being used now more than ever. As of December 2013, the total number of cardholders had increased 10 percent to over 500,000 during the previous 12 months; use of wireless access at the libraries, 13 percent; teen programs, 56 percent; adult programs, 10 percent; and use of the library website, 64 percent.

In spite of this, the library system’s operating budget has been reduced by $4 million since 2013 and by almost $10 million since 2007, even as the county’s total budget increased by $15 million. All 70 part-time positions and several full-time positions have been abolished. GED class participants have been reduced from 1,065 to 810, the size of an entire high school graduating class.

We have questions:

• Why were layoffs been ordered just months before the new branches open? Why not keep experienced employees for new staffing needs?

• Now that it has been decided not to replace the Central Library building, what has happened to the $84 million from the library bond issue set aside for that construction?

• At the same time you voted to lay off over 100 library staffers, why did you vote to create two new positions for yourselves: an administrative assistant at a salary of $50,000 for Emma Darnell, and a community enrichment manager at a salary of $78,000 for William Edwards? In addition, three of Commissioner Darnell’s current staff got pay raises.

You are part-time commissioners. How many full-time staff members do you really need? We think you should be setting a better example.

Libraries level the playing field for all when it comes to accessing information. Just as you provide citizens with access to courts, you should provide them with access to libraries.

The library is a lifeline for job hunting and the Internet access others take for granted. It’s the one place where all are welcome, learning is unrestricted and the environment is safe. The library also is a community gathering place where neighbors can discuss current issues and book clubs can meet. We need our libraries to operate more than 28 to 32 hours a week.

Shorter library hours also negatively impact fundraising by Friends of the Library groups. They have reduced donations and cut the book sale hours of the Northside Branch Friends, reducing the amount of funds that can be donated to the library. You are preventing us from helping you.

As it is, Northside Friends have used book-sale proceeds to pay for painting the dilapidated branch building, clearly the county’s long-neglected responsibility. The Friends at Northside have also agreed to pay for an automated materials checkout station, which should be furnished by the county.

We believe public access to the marketplace of ideas contained in the library is essential to a free society. We want you to reinstate hours and staffing to what they were in January. Increasing the quality of the library system was the promise you made to us in return for voting yes in the library bond referendum.

Nina Radakovich, a retired judge from Atlanta Municipal Court and City Court of Atlanta, is a member of the Board of the Friends of the Northside Branch Library, on whose behalf this letter is written.