Economy squeezes bustling library

Posted Monday, Aug. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Debbie Dashner is a published author, but during the quiet moments before the Mansfield Public Library closed Saturday, she was busily at work on one of a bank of computers.

“I prefer it. I just love libraries," said Dashner, a substitute schoolteacher whose book is title “Path to Gold”about figure skating. But since her book isn’t on the New York Times Best Seller List, she watches her spending. “I think the computer I have is a lemon. I’m going to give it to Goodwill.”

There seem to be as many library uses as there are patrons. But as the city continues to grow, the library is struggling to provide the services it needs to a building it outgrew years ago, officials say.

It’s not that city leaders don’t want to expand or build a new library. The city’s last bond election, nine years ago, allocated $1.5 million for an expansion that at that time would have added 10,000 square feet. It was planned for use in 2008.

“But as it got to be our turn, the bottom fell out of the economy,” said Library Director Steve Standefer.

That led to tightening budgets. And by 2010, with construction costs spiraling upward, inflation darkened the outlook for the library. The same $1.5 million would fund only a 4,000-square-foot expansion, enough for a “small but self-contained children’s wing” but little else, Standefer said.

Earlier this year, the City Council scrapped plans for a $35 million bond election in May, citing economic uncertainty and a lukewarm public response in surveys. The initial $100 million list of potential projects included proposals for either an 11,406-foot library expansion or construction of a new 50,000-square-foot library for $16.6 million. But those were dropped as the council whittled down the list to just street and public safety projects that it considered critical.

In the wake of the abandoned bond election, however, the city has pursued those priority projects by selling certificates of obligation, which are similar to bonds but don’t require an election.

City Councilman Darryl Haynes, a former member of the city’s library advisory board, said he was encouraged by comments at a recent budget meeting about possibly trying again for a bond election next year.

“We’ve gained some confidence in the long-term economic outlook, especially in Mansfield, because things are really looking up,” Haynes said, adding he believes the library deserves some relief. “Certainly the library would be part of that discussion.”

City Manager Clayton Chandler doesn’t share that optimism. He said that if there were an election next year – there’s no planning for one, he emphasized – it would be more like in November and still probably wouldn’t include library funding.

“I’m not seeing a real strong interest right now in a bond election,” Chandler said. The trigger for an election more likely would be an unexpected need for more infrastructure improvements.

Chandler is hopeful that the library’s needs will be met by being included in a major commercial development in the future. Haynes and Standefer would welcome such a partnership, but there’s nothing like that in the works now, they said.

Standefer said the library has immediate needs -- for more room for computers and parking, in addition to the children’s area. The 12-year-old building fit the city’s needs when it opened, he said. But the population has double to 60,000 people, and the library averages 200,000 visitors and 300,000 items in circulation each year, he added.

“We see an average of 800 people in the library every day,” Standefer said. “The thing we notice is how close everyone is to each other. It would make a difference if it wasn’t crowded.”

Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641 Twitter: @Kaddmann

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