Escambia County Commissioner Kevin White hit hard and early this morning, pouncing on what he termed “this garbage going on with the Northwest Florida Library.” He opened this morning’s commission work session expressing concern about the reduced hours recently announced by the library system and suggesting that the county focus on funding branches lying outside the city of Pensacola boundaries—“let the city fend for themselves.”
Commissioner Grover Robinson arrived to the meeting a few minutes late. White laughed as the commissioner took his seat.
“I was hoping to get this done before city-boy was here to fight me for it,” he said.
“I don’t know exactly what I’ve walked into,” Robinson responded.
White explained that he was discussing the library and budgetary concerns raised by a citizen, or “that email exchange between you and that moron over the weekend.”
After the meeting, Robinson said that he had heard from people with concerns over the county’s funding of the library system—down 5 percent from the 2012 budget—and the rollback in service. He had told them the county was cutting back across the board, and that it was the library system’s to cut hours.
“Everybody’s upset, nobody’s happy about getting cut,” Robinson said. “Everybody’s gotta be a team player, everybody’s gotta take a little bit of a hit.”
The commissioner also noted that he didn’t think the library’s decision to cut back hours following the county’s budget finalization was appropriate or proportional.
“I think the library system is going about it the wrong way,” he said.
Robinson told White the same during the meeting.
“You will actually find me in agreement with you,” he told the commissioner. “I think this is politics and I just don’t think this is good policy.”
Robinson also suggested that charging a $5 annual fee for library usage might be a possible solution to the budget issues.
“If you can’t get more than $5 of value out of the library, that’s not our problem, that’s the library’s problem,” he said.
Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson said he had “never seen such a nightmare over 5 percent.” And White noted that the county had made funding changes to its youth sports league and that there were more people taking advantage of that program than the “stupid library.”
“I shouldn’t have said it that way,” White clarified, after other commissioners questioned the characterization. “But the people in charge over there are not that bright right now.”
Betty Hooton, president of the West Florida Libraries Board of Trustees, see things differently. Contacted after the commission meeting, she wasn’t thrilled at the commissioners’ discussion.
“It just infuriates me,” Hooton said. “I see such stupidity in this. This is just ridiculous.”
The trustee president said that the library system had reduced costs where possible—“we’ve cut everywhere we can cut, we’ve been doing that for years”—and that the county’s $165,000 reduction amounted to a 15 percent cut when factoring in the new Molino branch and downtown branch expansion.
The commissioners’ talk of fees and a possible city-county split also disturbed Hooton. She said the concept of charging a fee didn’t jive fundamentally with the mission of a library and that splitting the system would “destroy” it.
Commissioner Robinson also said that splitting up the library system wasn’t the best idea.
“I think there would be some inefficiencies in two systems,” he said after this morning’s work session.
Hooton said the library traditionally has needed to fight for its budget, noting that County Administrator Randy Oliver told her he thought the county should “get out of the library business.” She also said it could be nice to see District 5 candidate Steven Barry—who attended a recent library board meeting—take White’s seat when he leaves the commission following the election.
“He actually told us that he was a college librarian—I said, ‘My God, we’ll actually have somebody on the board that knows something about libraries,” Hooton laughed, contrasting Barry with current commissioners. “Betty Vickers always asks the commissioners if she can renew their library cards and they all look at her like she’s got a screw loose.”