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Kanawha libraries prepare for layoffs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County Public Library board members are preparing to lay off employees across the county after voters rejected an excess levy for the library and the county school system on Saturday.

The board agreed Tuesday to find a law firm with experience in employment practices "to carry out these reductions in an especially fair manner," said Mike Albert, the library board's president.

"Much of our budget is salary and wages. We are a service institution," Albert said. "We're not trying to hurt anybody. We simply must react."

The plan would be to lay off the fewest possible employees "in a manner that brings operations in line with the budget" over the next six months or other appropriate period, Albert said.

On Saturday, Kanawha County voters overwhelmingly rejected an excess levy that would've brought in about $3 million for libraries each year, along with more than $20 million annually for the school system. The levy would have increased property taxes for a resident with a $100,000 home and a $15,000 car by $125 a year.

The levy was an attempt to repair the library's budget, which was stripped by 40 percent after the Supreme Court ruled in February that Kanawha County Schools was no longer required by law to help fund the library.

The court decision ended a decade-long fight led by the school system to nix its mandated funding relationship with the library.

Now that the levy has failed, the library will have to make major cuts -- including potentially closing up to six of its nine branches -- while still pursuing new potentials for revenue.

Albert said Tuesday that a committee of board members will analyze potential reductions and reorganization of the library.

"We're obviously very disappointed [with the levy result]. We're going to pursue funding in every reasonable way. But we've got a fiduciary obligation just as well ... to live within the budget that we now have," Albert said.

"Many if not most of our current operations are going to be affected," he said. "We expect the public to become upset, but [we] need to live within our reduced budget. We will now begin the painful process."

Among the cutbacks being considered by the board are reduced salaries for librarians and other employees; reduced operating hours; selling property; and eliminating services that do not benefit the needs of all library patrons, such as library services offered to schools.

Alan Engelbert, director of the Kanawha library system, said Monday that the best solution would be for the Legislature to create a statewide funding solution for all West Virginia public libraries. But he acknowledged that legislators probably won't do that.

Library officials could seek another levy election, work to increase public and private contributions, and ask state and federal agencies for emergency relief.

They also could ask Kanawha County school board members to fund the library beyond a previously agreed upon date, "based on the services provided by the library to the students of Kanawha County."

After the Supreme Court decision, school board members voted to give the library nearly $2 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2014, to allow library officials time to devise a plan. Four of the five Kanawha school board members supported the most recent excess levy.

While library officials put another potential levy on the list of Tuesday's considerations, they can't do it themselves. The library is not a levying body and would need the county Board of Education, the Kanawha County Commission or the city of Charleston to sponsor the levy.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper told the Gazette Monday that he is not willing to put another library levy attempt on next May's primary ballot -- when the county's public safety levy will also be on the ballot.

"I've been a long friend of Kent Carper. He's an ardent supporter of the library. I frankly question his observation about putting us on the levy, but we're going to talk to him about it and see what his reaction is," Albert said.

"There was a significant reaction to the last levy. We've got to realize that coming back with another levy right away for us is going to be difficult. Whether we can convince somebody to do that for us -- that's something we'll look at."

Also Tuesday, library officials announced the consequences of one of the first cutbacks made after the Supreme Court decision: the cancellation of the annual West Virginia Book Festival.

The library continued its used book sale fundraiser -- which had been part of the festival in recent years -- but brought in only about $18,000 from the book sale last month, compared to $31,000 the year before.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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