By John H. Eaves
Last year, the Fulton County Commission needed the help of the residents of Fulton County, who stepped up in a big way.
They let us know what priorities they wanted us to focus on and which priorities they wanted to back up with resources and dollars. We learned very quickly that our libraries were such a priority.
However, it was around this time last year that the Board of Commissioners had to handle budgetary issues. The Great Recession took its toll on local governments and we were no exception. We made every effort for years to avoid raising property taxes to pay for the programs and services our constituents demanded.
By the time we had to put together a budget for 2014, our reserves dwindled, declining property values left us with less money coming in, and we faced a series of tough calls to make.
As a result, we proposed raising our millage rate and we made cuts to county departments and services. The library budget was one of them.
As a member of the library board, this was an especially bitter pill to swallow. At the same ceremonies where we broke ground on new branches in Alpharetta, Roswell, Palmetto, Capitol View and Wolf Creek, I was also answering reporters’ questions about why we were cutting back library operations and building new facilities at the same time.
My office received calls and emails from so many library users, in north Fulton, south Fulton, and the city of Atlanta, talking about not having this valuable resource every day of the week. Parents told me about the time they spent working with their children on school projects, using library reference materials on Friday afternoons. Unemployed residents told me how desperately they needed to use the computer terminals in our branches as they scoured the web looking for their next opportunity.
The impact of this decision began to emerge and I quickly realized the cuts, especially the loss of Friday hours and reductions on other days, needed to be reversed.
Later in 2014, library board members agreed to shift resources around to minimize the impact of cuts to our patrons. Staff was moved, schedules were adjusted to provide for some badly needed coverage on Fridays. The total weekly hours among 34 branches were reduced from 1,562 in 2013 to 996 in 2014.
That still meant we were open longer hours than our counterparts in Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb Counties. Still more needed to be done, and my fellow commissioners, many of whom heard the same complaints from our constituents, made funding the library to the fullest a top priority. It became obvious as we consulted with staff on a countywide budget for 2015, that moving staff and adjusting hours wasn’t enough. We needed to add hours to the schedule.
I am especially proud of three elements of the budget passed in January: unanimous support that bridged district and party lines, no tax increase to our citizens, and a restoration of library hours to their 2013 levels. By Feb. 15, Friday hours will be added to the branches that were cut last year. By April 1, the hours will be restored to their 2013 levels.
The library system’s mission statement says, “the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System serves as a cultural and intellectual center that enriches the community and empowers all residents with essential tools for lifelong learning.” That quest for lifelong learning should never take a day off. It is of so much importance to our community that residents voted to fund our ambitious capital overhaul and building program of the entire library system.
As the newest branches at Wolf Creek and Palmetto demonstrate, Fulton County is remaking the traditional library and building new branches with the 21st Century library patron in mind. That will help users better interact with technology, and integrate technology into every aspect of the library experience, from searching for materials to digitally checking out.
This would not have been possible without the support of voters at the polls. This past year, you voted once more for the libraries, with calls and emails. As we prepare for the grand opening of our newest branch in East Roswell, we are striving to prove that your efforts have paid off with a system that is the envy of every other county in this state.
The biggest message I want you to take away from this is that Fulton County listens and our citizens’ needs do matter.
John H. Eaves is the chairman of the Fulton County Commission.