PEPPERELL — In a move that could impact operating hours and the library accreditation, the Finance Committee has cut 5 percent — $21,826 — from the Lawrence Library budget for fiscal 2011.
The cut was adopted by a 5-2 vote on March 25, after Finance Committee member George Zacharakis presented research that indicated the library could likely secure a waiver to retain accreditation, even if its budget doesn’t meet standards outlined by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
“Out of the last 335 waiver applications, five have been denied,” said Zacharakis. “I’m guessing if we take a 5 percent, 7 percent cut, our chances of getting it are pretty good.”
Library officials came into the budget process seeking an increase of $5,965 to their current allocation of $436,539, primarily to ensure the library would retain accreditation in the coming year.
Exact impact of the Finance Committee cut was unclear on March 25. Library director Debra Spratt didn’t elaborate at the meeting and declined comment afterwards, as did a couple of library trustees. Beforehand, the 5 percent reduction was projected to drop weekly operating hours from 43 to 40 and possibly downsize one staffer, though no further details were given.
After the vote, committee Chairman Chris DeSimone offered Spratt an opportunity to make adjustments, but she was noncommittal. DeSimone, along with committee member Holly Seiferth, were the dissenting votes on the reduction.
During deliberations, DeSimone said the 5 percent cut was high, when compared with what was asked of other town departments. He said 3 percent, about $13,000, would be closer to the norm.
Zacharakis said town officials made a mistake by fully funding the library with the previous year’s override. He also thought the library budget needs to reflect reductions that have been absorbed by other departments and the private sector in the past year.
“I want the library to answer to the town, like every other department has answered,” he said.
Discussion prior to the vote centered on retaining accreditation, which brings Pepperell roughly $16,000 of state aid and allows patrons to use interlibrary loan and to borrow from libraries across the state.
Among other things, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners requires the local appropriation for public libraries to increase by 2.5 percent over the average of what was appropriated the previous three years. In this case, Spratt said $5,965 was necessary to avoid needing a waiver for that requirement. On March 18, some committee members were swayed by her argument that the wavier was a time-consuming process with an uncertain outcome and they sounded open to Spratt’s idea of using $9,300 of old warrant articles — originally appropriated to buy books — to help her bridge the shortfall.
However, it was unclear on March 18 if that measure would be permissible for accreditation purposes. On March 25, Spratt had confirmed that it was but the data presented by Zacharakis had a decisive impact on the deliberations.
Using library commissioner’s data, Zacharakis noted that the waiver was secured by 96 out of 97 communities that applied in 2010. The sole exception was Hull, which cut 63 percent of its library budget. Going back to 2009, he said the only two communities denied waivers were Hubbardston and Norton, who cut their budgets by 69 and 33 percent, respectively. He said Freetown received a waiver despite a 29-percent cut.
He also noted that a cut of 5 percent or less would not require library and personnel to appeal for a waiver in person, something Spratt said she wanted to avoid at the previous meeting.
Spratt said there’s no guarantees with the waiver process and the state has changed its stance on that process several times in recent years, adding the library is still working off a $10,000 cut made in 2003. Instead, she advocated for a compromise where she’d use part of the old book money to meet accreditation, with the remainder — and several thousand dollars of book fine money — going to the general fund in return.
A vote to that effect was called on March 25, but only DeSimone and Seiferth supported it. Zacharakis motioned for the 5 percent cut shortly after, which prompted Spratt to say her compromise with the warrant articles was “off the table.” She also said noted that the dollar figure for the accreditation requirement will remain fixed even if the budget is cut, saying this cut wouldn’t lower the bar for next year.
During the discussion, committee member Michael Landino suggested the Library Trustees could pursue what they need through a warrant article that has been filed to claim book-fine money from the general fund. However, Spratt and the trustees present had no interest in that scenario.
After the vote, Zacharakis told Spratt he was one of the people who fought to keep the library open last year, saying it wasn’t a case of him hating the library. Similarly, committee members Alan Leao Jr. and Landino suggested the new information on the waivers had a big impact on how they voted.
“It doesn’t appear it takes an act of God to get the waiver,” said Landino.