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Library idea moves forward

GATESVILLE – Does Gates County need to build a new public library?

If so, can the county’s coffers pay for such a project without placing a burden on its limited finances?

Those issues were addressed here last week when the Gates County Board of Commissioners met in regular session. In the end, by a 3-2 vote, the board approved moving forward to the next step of building a new, modern library. That next step is to prepare and release a request for qualifications for architectural services.

Board Chairman Graham Twine along with Commissioners Kenneth Jernigan and Wade Askew favored the measure while fellow board members Henry Jordan and Carlton Nickens were in opposition. However, Jordan said he would favor a new library if it were built in Sunbury.

According to the minutes of the May 17 meeting, Jordan placed a motion on the floor that called for the viewing of the costs associated with removing the old Sunbury School and building a new library at that site. His motion died for lack of a second.

Site selection for the proposed library has yet to be determined, although some county officials feel a centralized location would best serve all citizens.

In an interview last week with the Gates County Index, Twine said building a new public library would be a progressive move.

“As politicians, we constantly hear that progress never happens here,” Twine said. “I see a new library as progress, as well as some other things we have planned later down the line.”

Apparently, the initial legwork to see if a new library was feasible began in February. There, Gates County Manager Toby Chappell was invited to attend a meeting with Gary Hoyle, Director of the Albemarle Regional Library system, and members of the Gates County Historical Society.

Chappell said the meeting was convened in an effort to work with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) to bring federal stimulus money to Gates County to renovate and modernize the local library.

It was learned during the meeting that Gates County’s per capita income was too high for the county to qualify for USDA grants. However, it was discovered that the county did qualify for a low interest loan to use for library improvements.

Chappell said the first step to determine Gates County’s need for this money hinged upon a USDA engineer coming to the county and determining the feasibility of the project. That occurred the week of Feb. 22 and it was the engineer’s opinion that it was not a prudent investment for USDA to invest in renovations to the library, currently housed in the old Gates County Courthouse, one constructed in 1836.

The courthouse, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, currently has several structural problems, not uncommon for a building nearly 175 years old.

“We now have a public library in a building that served this county well for a long period of time,” Chappell said in a later interview. “It’s in a building that wasn’t designed to serve as a library. It’s a functionality issue.”

On March 2, Chappell, Twine and Jernigan (who serves as Commission Vice Chairman) met with Hoyle to further discuss the library issue.

“It is Mr. Hoyle’s position that Gates County needs to explore a modern, functional library for the citizens,” Chappell said at the May 17 board meeting.

Hoyle also directed the trio to look at the new public library built last October in Currituck County. They followed that direction, finding a $2.4 million facility.

“There were a lot of extras added to that building, ones we could eliminate and make the cost of our project more reasonable,” Chappell said.

Chappell said he figured a 7,800 square foot facility in Gates County to cost $975,000. He added that the USDA would offer a 30-year loan at 4 percent interest (with no upfront money to the county). That would work out to an annual payment of $56,384.

According to Chappell, there are a couple of options to meet that annual payment. One would be a property tax increase of 0.66 percent of one penny. That would mean an annual increase of $6.60 for a homeowner with property valued at $100,000; $13.20 for a $200,000 home; or $19.80 for a $300,000 residence.

The second option would not require a tax hike. Chappell said that in two years the county will retire $562,726 in annual debt service for the recent round of school construction. Additionally, the county learned in March that Medicaid would be paying $340,000 to the county in “hold-harmless” money.

Chappell suggested removing $500,000 from the county’s General Fund balance to pay down on the library, thus lowering the annual payment to $27,216. The “hold-harmless” money could be used to help bridge the gap between now and when the school debt is retired in 2013.

“It’s a perfect situation funding wise, with the pending retirement of the school construction debt coupled with the unexpected money that came back from Medicaid,” Twine noted. “There will be funds available to pay for a new library without raising taxes.”

Old vs. new

As history has it, the Gates County Public Library traces its roots to the 1930’s. There, according to current-day librarian Pat Familar, a woman working with the Home Demonstration Agency (now the Extension Service) would take books to the meetings she attended throughout the county.

Sometimes in the early 1940’s, the Gates County Library finally found a home upstairs in the old courthouse. From there it has moved over the years to the old county DSS building, to the old Health Department and to a facility now occupied by GITS (Gates Interlocal Transportation System) before returning to its first home (the old courthouse) in 1991.

“It’s wonderful to be in this old building, there’s so much history here, but we’re very limited here on how we can arrange things,” Familar said. “People love their library, but they want more room for children’s programming, computers all in the same room, research rooms, etc.”

The issue of making renovations to the current location is also problematic.

“This courthouse is on the (National) Historic Register, so we can’t go knocking out walls,” she said. “Plus you run into code enforcement issues.”

Familar said she favors a new library, one in a central location for the county.

While she admits there are those who say public libraries are dinosaurs, relics of the past in a current age where digital images of printed material and photos can be viewed on hand-held electronic devices, Familar was steadfast in her belief that a printed book, magazine or newspaper would always be needed.

“We have people, young and old, that feel more at ease with a printed piece in their hands,” she said.

Familar also cited other advantages of a public library, touting its large collection of books on tape as well as public access to computers.

“We have a great number of patrons that enjoy the selection of books we have on audio tape, they are very popular,” she noted. “Plus, if you look at the number of people that come here, there are a great deal of Gates County citizens that do not own a computer as well as those who do have a computer, but are without access to a broadband internet network. We have those here and you need a public place offering such services to our citizens.”

Currently, $90,000 of Gates County taxpayers money is used to fund the public library on an annual basis. That money is used to pay the salaries of those employed there as well as for insurance premiums and utilities.