Harnett Commissioners Consider Library Consolidation

Harnett County commissioners were asked to revisit plans for a consolidated county library system. Dunn Daily Record Photo

Harnett County leaders conducted a study in 2018 to look at the benefits of bringing all of the libraries in the county’s system under one umbrella. The current system is unlike others in North Carolina in that affiliates like Dunn, Erwin, Angier and Coats aren’t fully funded by the county, leaving expenses such as salaries, maintenance and materials up to the individual branches.

In her proposal to renew the existing interlocal agreement between the county and its affiliates and branches on Tuesday morning, Angela McCauley, branch head of the Harnett County Public Library, asked the board of commissioners if it would to like to reenter into discussions about a possible merger. The consolidation is expected to unify services and improve access for residents. McCauley said a master plan was created at the time of the study that established a single system that offered pros and cons to the practice.

“We were very proactive on moving forward with what we could do about that,” McCauley said. “We went out to the municipal branches and talked to the staff there and found out what their needs are. We went to the state library and asked for guidance.

“We talked to other library systems who went through the process of consolidating. At some point they all integrated. They weren’t just born that way. They all became that over the years.”

While the county pays for services like maintaining the circulation system, supplying high-speed internet and digital resources, centralized cataloging, and mailing and shipping costs, other expenses remain for the local branches to cover.

The study found branches required different needs from the county, but the biggest expense centered around staffing.

“County staff presented a consolidation plan and budget to the board for consideration,” said McCauley. “The total to consolidate at that time was a little over $927,000 to bring in those four affiliate libraries. About 84% was for staff salaries because our branches are severely understaffed. We have one library that has one employee. If she is sick the library closes until she comes back. We learned some branches were in more need of these things than others. We also learned no town was against the consolidation. Some were more interested than others for various reasons. It was determined that while it would take a little work with funding, the benefits could potentially outweigh the expense. But there was an expense to do that.”

A funding formula offered in the study based costs on population, but McCauley said libraries in Anderson Creek and Boone Trail are nestled in unincorporated areas, making the approach difficult to apply.

“While consolidation is most certainly a step in the right direction for fighting for fair and equitable library services and resources to all Harnett County citizens, funding does present a road block that is made even more uncertain by our current situation and into the future with COVID-19,” McCauley said.

Harnett County Commissioner Lew Weatherspoon served as chairman of the committee that initially looked at the possibility and said the municipalities may want something a little more encompassing if they’re going to hand over control of the facility.

“I still think that is something we should pursue and look at,” said Weatherspoon. “I think we should try to work with the municipalities to come up with a way to help relieve some of the initial burden but over a decreasing scale. You’re going to [get] kick back from the municipalities, I can tell you that already. They’re thinking is if you’re going to take our library you need to take it all and fund it. We’ve got to sit down and work out how we can work into this.”

-Dunn Daily Record