HALLOWELL — Officials at the 138-year-old Hubbard Free Library are kicking off strategic planning in an attempt to guide the cash-strapped library to financial stability.

The first step is a public forum, designed to gauge what residents want from the library, taking place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, at City Hall. The plan will conclude in May with recommendations by the Board of Trustees. Other events informing the plan include a survey planned for February and another public forum in March.

The private, nonprofit organization’s struggles with money have been well-documented. Currently, the library’s board is projecting a $13,000 shortfall in funding, which could close the library if not made up before the end of the fiscal year at the end of June.

Interim Director Annemarie Kromhout said the library has trimmed back book orders, staff positions and hours to cut costs. Kromhout is a part-time employee, and there are four part-time librarians on staff at the library. She said the focus of the library has shifted toward fundraising and that coincided with the time she was hired, around November 2017.

“We put a lot more effort into fundraising in the past year or so,” Kromhout said. “I was not here before, but looking at the paperwork, I believe we’ve raised more in the past two years … then we have (in previous years).”

Ken Young, president of the library’s Board of Trustees, said prior boards were spending down the library’s endowment to help cover discrepancies in operating costs. In June 2018, the Kennebec Journal reported the funding bind was the result of a number of factors that included the Great Recession and ensuing economic uncertainty. Perhaps due to widespread financial constraints, donations to the library’s general fund and endowment took a massive hit. Because the general fund was down, the library had to dip into the endowment which was reported to be about $450,000, down from its peak at nearly $800,000.

Young said Wednesday that the endowment, which is no longer being drawn from and growing, sat at $627,000 at the end of December 2018.

“We’re in better shape than we were at the end of 2016 or 2017,” he said.

Since that change in focus toward sustaining the library — rather than scraping by each year — donations are trending up. Young said the general fund was just under four times higher in 2018 compared to 2017. Last fiscal year, 236 donors raised $33,800 to the library’s general fund, up from the previous year’s total of $8,500. Young is hoping for a similarly successful annual fund drive in fiscal year 2019, but the donations total is poised to be lower than last year, despite more donors.

“We have to push hard on that (general) fund,” Young said.

Despite a stronger general fund, the library is still projected to be short of its operating costs.

A throng of residents at a City Council meeting in June 2018 spoke in support of the library and urged councilors to support a proposal that would have given the library $33,000 in each of the next two years — on top of the city’s annual commitment of $27,000 for a projected operating deficit.

When the city’s budget passed in August 2018, the city awarded the library $57,000: $15,000 for operating costs, its usual $27,000 contribution and $15,000 in tax increment financing revenue to fund the strategic plan and other small projects. Because TIF revenue cannot be spent on operating costs, the operating deficit still sat at $18,000.

Young said the projected deficit is now closer to $13,000, but if the library doesn’t get that money by the end of June, it may close. He said the money could come from any number of sources, like further city funding or donations. He said the trustees are not likely to pull from the endowment, because it has already worked some of that money into the budget.

Young said the trustees will likely ask the city for $33,000 next fiscal year due to similar projections.

But before adopting more sustainable practices, trustees must learn what the community wants from the library — and if they will donate to support it.

“What we have now isn’t really sustainable, so it needs to change,” Young said. “You have to have something people want before they support it.”

The budget for the strategic plan is $10,000, Young said, most of which will go to Carole Martin, a consultant who will conduct the forums and help unwind the data.

A number of donors do not actively use the library, Young said, but understand the library provides people necessary services and access to information. Another group of donors believe the historic building is an anchor for Hallowell, he said. Built in 1880, Hubbard Free Library is the oldest library building in Maine still serving its original purpose.

“They understand the critical role of the library in the community,” Young said. “They love the building, they want it to be sustained.”

Hallowell residents get free library cards, while out-of-towners must pay a $40 annual fee for a membership. Kromhout said the library has just under 2,000 patrons and about 500 are from out-of town. The library also archives historical documents.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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