Budget strains county service

Since 1942, books have been delivered along rural, Centre County roads in a vehicle serving as the county library’s bookmobile. There are no plans to discontinue the service, though it appears that the state budget is set to fund libraries level with last year and costs of running the bookmobile climb.

“It’s not an ideal situation because of inflation and cost increases for diesel fuel. … With the budget the way it is, you don’t know what you’ll get down the road,” said Lisa Erickson, executive director of the Centre County Library.

Last year, one of the library’s branch locations closed and was replaced with a bookmobile stop.

Six percent of the library’s patrons wait regularly for the bookmobile. They receive DVDs, books and free Internet access when it stops, usually at supermarkets and places where people gather. It costs $65,000 for the library to operate the bookmobile for a year, Erickson said.

Huntingdon County Library’s bookmobile went offline in 2009 after “many, many years and many reiterations,” Executive Director Nancy Holland said.

“We were going to five elementary schools, two retirement communities and other stops. But stops became fewer because of increasing dual-income families and kids aren’t home. We found less people coming to our stops. When we told people the service was ending, we probably received three calls.”

But Holland said the biggest reason the bookmobile service ended in Huntingdon was money.

“We have less money in 2014 than we had in 2003,” she said.

State funding dropped twice since 2004 and has slowly crept back. But local governmental funding sources continue to dwindle.

“We are getting less and less money from the county, and the borough cut out any contribution this year. … We are a very red county. People don’t want taxes, don’t want to pay for the services.”

Holland said Huntingdon residents use Centre and Blair libraries where they also have free access because “they all (libraries) play the state game.”

“People want eBooks, new fiction. They still want things. But there is a cost to providing that,” she said.

The library’s budget is less than $350,000 per year with $178,000 coming from the state. A couple of other townships contribute $3,000, and more than $50,000 comes in the form of donations. A bulk of the budget is payroll. But Holland said the employees are paid just about minimum wage and have no health care or pension benefits.

Huntingdon Borough Manager Bill Wheeler said the borough did not donate $3,000 to the library as it had last year. Increased health care costs of borough employees and other costs of running borough business have resulted in an anticipated end-of year budgetary deficit.

“We raised taxes this year by 4 mills, and we decided it was prudent at the same time to remove elective contributions. … The council elected not to make donations to the library or any other novel donations,” he said. “The library is certainly a worthwhile community endeavor. … We are hoping to recover enough next year to resume donations.”

Huntingdon County Commissioner Gary O’Korn said the county budget was also too tight to support the library.

“The library is like many other things we have to analyze. The budget is a major undertaking,” said O’Korn, a first-term commissioner who’s dealt with three county budgets.

The county reduced library funding from $70,000 to under $62,000 in recent years.

“It’s frustrating to the library system. It’s had its affect,” O’Korn said.

Two branch locations of the library closed and are running on volunteers.

Huntingdon County has a population of 46,000 people, and about 10,000 are patrons of the library, Holland said.

Bedford County’s population size is similar to that of Huntingdon. But it’s a different story for bookmobile service in that county.

“Diesel fuel is expensive, but in Bedford County, we feel it is really important, particularly with our geographic spread. It is difficult to get to a library. We feel it is really important to keep it up,” Bedford County Library Director Matt Godissart said.

Patrons of the Bedford bookmobile use it for entertainment more than education. A high proportion of patrons want fiction. Patronage includes day cares and private schools without libraries, but the bookmobile’s primary patrons are retirees, Godissart said.

Bedford residents have bookmobile services thanks to a federation of four libraries in the county that receive a special portion of state funding for countywide services.

The libraries have also done aggressive local government campaigning, Godissart said.

Bedford County commissioners fund the federation of libraries $120,000 per year.

“We’ve been fortunate. We haven’t increased library funding, but we haven’t cut it either,” Commissioner Kirt Morris said.

“The county has had cash-flow issues, he said. But the libraries of the county federation do a lot of fundraising themselves and collaborate so that they are not duplicating costs and services.

Those efforts have allowed smaller rural libraries to remain open in the county.

“A lot of people don’t have or can’t afford Internet access. Libraries are more than just places to read,” Morris said. “It’s a major part of the community.”

The Altoona Public Library has never employed a bookmobile. Executive Director Jennifer Knisely said Blair County residents are fortunate to have fewer transportation barriers to reaching community libraries than residents of other counties.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.