FARMINGTON — With ballooning costs and a shrinking endowment, Farmington Public Library faces steep cuts in staff and operating hours going into Monday’s Town Meeting.

Even with the $187,094 the library is requesting from Farmington residents in this year’s municipal budget proposal, a 25.1 percent increase in the town’s contribution compared with 2016, the library will be forced to lay off some part-time staff members and reduce its hours from 40.5 to 32 hours a week, Library Director Maurie Stockford said.

The town plans to hold its municipal election from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday at the Community Center at 127 Middle Street, followed by Town Meeting at 7 p.m.

“We’ve been underfunded for a long time; and this year, with the minimum wage increases in staffing and for management, and ever increasing health care costs, we just kind of hit a wall,” Stockford said.

In a Jan. 31 meeting with the Board of Selectmen, the library’s treasurer, Richard Morton, described the growing budget deficit as “death by a thousand cuts.” In addition to bringing on a professional librarian and covering health care costs, the library had bought 20 computers and required additional staffing to help patrons navigate sometimes unfamiliar technology and run both floors of the recently expanded library.

“The library is the place where everybody goes to access technology they can’t access themselves,” Morton said. “Those people on both floors are demanding somebody at their shoulder more often than you would think, and so as a public place, as a public service place, it has become a much more complex entity to run.”

The town did not make a formal commitment when it agreed to start funding the library in the early 1900s, Morton admitted, but decided to contribute to the library in return for no-fee, public access. In recent years the town typically has covered staffing costs, while the library covered the cost of maintaining and insuring its building.

This year the Budget Committee has recommended the town contribute $165,945 to the library, an 11 percent increase over last year, which committee member Clyde Ross described as a “very arbitrary” figure. The selectmen halved the increase to 5.5 percent, recommending a $157,723 contribution. If townspeople approve one of these recommendations, the library would need to further reduce staff, Stockford said, and cut hours to 30 or 27.5 hours a week, respectively.

Another potential casualty of the cuts is Stockford herself, who faces a 25 percent pay reduction, a loss she said she cannot sustain. At the Jan. 10 selectmen’s meeting, Stockford initially requested $209,990 for the library, a 40 percent increase over 2016, but returned with the lower number from the library’s board after selectmen balked, noting multiple departments, including fire, police and public works, were also short-staffed but had not requested comparable budget increases.

“I don’t question you guys need that money to run that the way you need,” said Selectman Matthew Smith, responding to the library’s reduced request. “Everybody wants to run their department better, but we give them what we feel we can afford, and I know for myself what you guys are asking for is just too much.”

Some members of the Board of Selectmen asked how the library’s budget crisis had gotten to this point. In an extended exchange, Selectman Joshua Bell asked why the library had focused so many resources on computers and technology.

“If you go around, a lot of people carry a smartphone now. That’s instant access to the internet,” Bell said. “To me it seems like when you’re talking about doing research, and it has no relation to a book.. To me it’s going against the whole purpose of a library.”

Stockford responded by saying the library is devoted to increasing reading and literacy, but its mission as an information resource meant it should provide information in all its many forms. She said circulation of books, video disks and other items was growing, and those who relied most on the library’s technology typically come from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.

“They don’t have smartphones. They don’t have internet access at home. If they did, they wouldn’t be at the library using it,” Stockford said. “They’re there because they have no other choice in terms of accessing technology and it’s required for so many things, whether it’s applying for a job, whether it’s getting your insurance card, filing for taxes.”

At the meeting, Selectman Michael Fogg expressed his preference to use the money for other needy services, stating, “If we’re going to give 10 to 15 percent increases to each department, I’d much rather give it to the Fire Department, because that’s much more of a public service that needs that; but they’re not going to ask for it, because it’s very tough to get.”

In response, Town Manager Richard Davis noted this year’s proposed Fire Department budget, which reflects a nearly 19 percent increase over 2016 because of last year’s vote to hire full-time firefighters. The requested budget includes a 0.6 percent pay raise for 2017. About 6 percent of the total increase would be covered by redirecting money from debt service to the department, Ross said.

The library’s request for $187,094 would make up about 71 percent of its projected budget for 2017, according to the town warrant. The remaining costs would need to be covered through the library’s endowment, grants and fundraising. In 2002, the endowment’s income was about $72,000 but has shrunk to less than $50,000 for the coming year.

“What we used to be seeing as a $3,000 or $4,000 increase per year in that endowment production has flattened,” said Morton. “We’re not generating a nice bump every year the way we did.”

Selectmen also pushed Morton and Stockford on their lackluster fundraising projections. In the Jan. 31 meeting, Fogg noted the library had listed only $1,500 in expected fundraising income, a figure he said “seemed very low.”

But Morton and Stockford said fundraising was unlikely to make the difference. The people who most need the library are low-income, Stockford said, without the means to support it through donations.

“We’re kind of in a Catch-22,” Stockford said. “We try to get money wherever we can.”

But even in such difficult times, Stockford said, the library is not considering charging entry fees.

“I think the premise of a public library is to provide free services for the public. We certainly look at ourselves as being an equalizer,” Stockford said.

If Farmington voters accept the remaining budget items on this year’s warrant as jointly recommended by the Board of Selectmen and the Budget Committee, they will be approving a total budget increase of $182,454 or $190,317, depending on the approved library budget, or a 3.37 percent to 3.5 percent increase over 2016. Those figures do not account for the library’s higher request.

Farmington voters also will weigh in Monday on electoral races. On the Board of Selectmen, Stephan Bunker is running unopposed for another three-year term, while H. Scott Landry Jr. aims to fill the seat vacated by Andrew Buckland. Landry ran as a Democrat for Maine’s 113th House District seat in 2016, losing that race to Republican Lance E. Harvell by 93 votes. Harvell mounted a comeback after losing the seat to Buckland in 2014. Also running unopposed are Tami Labul and Ryan Morgan, who are each seeking another three-year term on the Regional School Unit 9 board of directors.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick

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