GREEN COVE SPRINGS | Clay County library lovers called on the County Commission to restore full hours at all five branches but the majority of commissioners favor first building a new regional facility to serve the South Oakleaf and North Middleburg area.

 

The county’s growing population has left many residents without easy access to a library, according to Pat Coffman, director of the county library system.

A regional library was among potential projects the commission cited last year in its successful campaign to persuade county voters to extend Clay’s 1-cent sales tax to pay for future capital improvements.

The commission by concensus during an Aug. 7 workshop agreed to explore the idea of the regional library possibly located at the same site as a cafe/coffee shop or a local government services offices.

The five branch libraries currently have staggered operating hours as the result of past budget cuts beginning in 2009.

Coffman told the commission to expand library hourse, they would have to have two shifts of people. The libraries are operating with a single shift of employees, she said.

Members of the Clay County Library Advisory Board of Trustees as well as those Friends of the Library groups at individual branches urged the commission to restore to former levels the operaating hours at each facility. They estimated that would cost at least $350,000 a year.

“Library administration planning shows the goal of full-service can be reached by adding 12 FTE [Full-time equivalent] to the current 52 FTE,” said Sandy Coffey of Orange Park, a member of the Clay County Library Advisory Board of Trustees.

“It would enable all Clay County branches to offer full service from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday,” Coffey said.

Coffman described three options that varied in cost from $551,000 to $376,295 to a low of $46,917, depending on staffing levels and activities offered, number of branches with extended hours offered and whether only the Fleming Island headquarters library had extended hours.

Joy Elrod, president of Friends of the Library on Fleming Island, said libraries serve as community centers, where groups hold meetings, enjoy entertainment, use the public computers for research, write resume and look for jobs. There also are a variety of children’s activities.

“We need to serve our public through our library to the fullest extent we possibly can because that’s the heartbeat of our community on Fleming Island,” Elrod said.

The commission emphasized its support for the libraries, but several voiced doubt that expanding the hours would be cost-effective.

Commission Chairman Wayne Bolla said he wants to see a staffing plan for the whole library system.

“I would like to look at a bare bones operation. No enrichment stuff, just keep the library open Let’s start there. And then add on programs that we think are absolutely necessary,” Bolla said.

Bolla also called for stepped up recruitment of library volunteers as a way to supplement expanded operating hours.

“To have the library open, what you really need is one or two paid employees to make sure the lights stay on and someone doesn’t set fire to the place,” Bolla said. “But after that, I could see filling in extensively with volunteers to add to the hours.”

Vice Chairwoman Diane Hutchings said they also must look at the level of service. Hutching said she understands the existing libraries want increased hours, there are residents who would like to have a library building.

“When the county put forward to the residents the 1-cent sales tax we talked about providing a building, and providing a library that would be more adequate for the population in the western side of the county,” said Hutchings, noting the county’s smallest branches – Keystone Heights and Middleburg-Clay Hill – currently serve that area.

“To me, if you look at a map, they are the most under-served as far as having a facility,” Hutchings said of those residents.

Hutchings said in her opinion the residents in that area who passed the sales tax extension anticipated they would get a new library with some of the revenue raised.

“So before we start expanding hours in other parts of the county, I’d like to see the level of service more equal throughout the county,” Hutchings said. “I’m not opposed to expaning hours. It’s just a matter of expanding hours at all the other libraries in the county, and now we still can’t afford to operate one in Middleburg or that general area.”

Bolla said he’d “love to see a major league library” put in the Oakleaf-Middleburg area.

He also said he liked the idea of a public-private partnership with a coffee shop, as well as a branch office for possibly the county Tax Collector, at the same site as the new library.

Coffman, responding to commission questions, said if the libraries want to continue offering services such enrichment activities and classes, it takes more than just bare bones staffing.

Some days, some employees are there 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and others are there noon-8 p.m. so there is a balance of library availability between the day and evening, she said.

Bolla also said the county should expand the library hours where it makes sense, and not carte blanche.

Commissioner Gavin Rollins also voiced support for the Oakleaf-Middleburg area library concept, as well as having government services there and a coffee shop.

Commissioner Gayward Hendry said he had no problem with a new library serving Oakleaf and Middleburg, but he couldn’t support closing the existing Middleburg-Clay Hill Library.

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Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075