West Hartford Library’s Budget on the Chopping Block

Tuesday, December 22, 2015
West Hartford — Just a year after opening a new $900,000 building to house the West Hartford Library, Hartford Selectboard members are poised to slash the library’s budget by about two-thirds, to just $15,000 per year.

Five of the six Selectboard members who were present at last week’s meeting favored cutting the library’s appropriation in the 2017 fiscal year budget, although the amount will be reviewed once more before the board finalizes the budget it will forward to voters.

West Hartford Library Chairman Tom Hazen said the library would be forced to make deep cuts to its hours, which he said would be a blow to the village as a whole.

“Our library has been there since 1929. It’s all we have, to be honest,” Hazen said. “The post office is gone. The store is gone. We have nothing.”

The West Hartford Library was ruined by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and was rebuilt with a combination of town and federal funds; it reopened in December 2014. The 2010 Town Report shows that the West Hartford Library was open for 27 hours per week. It’s now open for 33 hours per week.

Hartford Selectboard Chairman Chuck Wooster proposed the cut during a Dec. 17 budget workshop meeting.

Wooster said that even before Irene, the library had a poor track record in terms of efficiency, and that library trustees had not shown enough willingness to work with other libraries in town to consolidate expenses and improve services.

“Our job is to allocate the taxpayers’ money most efficiently,” he said, according to a CATV video of the meeting.

At the other libraries, “the services are being delivered at half the cost or less per user,” he said.

The battle over the West Hartford Library budget is the latest result of Hartford’s unusually fractured library system — the town makes five separate allocations to four separate libraries, each of which is governed by its own board.

A long-running debate in town pits those who believe that each library should be run by its own community with as much independence as possible against those who favor centralizing the system to avoid duplication of services and improve cost efficiency.

In FY15, which ended last July, the Selectboard allocated $311,000 for library services in the five villages: $89,000 to the Hartford Village Public Library; $149,000 to the Quechee Public Library; $26,000 to the Wilder Club and Public Library; $15,000 to support a reading room at the Mahijo Yata building in White River Junction (which is overseen by the Hartford Village Public Library); and $32,000 to the West Hartford Library.

Wooster’s proposal, which was significantly less than the $35,000 recommended by Interim Town Manager Steve Locke, drew support from members Rebecca White, Dick Grassi, Sandra Mariotti and Simon Dennis; Selectman Matt Bucy was not present.

Only Selectman Alex DeFelice voted against the measure.

“Chuck, that’s going to close that library,” DeFelice said when Wooster made the motion. “How are you going to keep that library open for 20 hours a week for $15,000?”

Over the last several years, Hartford’s libraries have cut costs by sharing staff and programming and consolidating services. But dysfunction has prevented West Hartford from fully collaborating with other libraries.

In December 2014, West Hartford Librarian Abby Walsh quit, and wrote in her resignation letter that “the work environment is arduous due to a fractured organizational structure.” She also criticized what she saw as a muddying of roles between the librarian, Hazen and Hazen’s wife, Christy Hazen, who was the president of the Friends of the West Hartford Library.

Shortly thereafter, the Vermont Department of Libraries helped the West Hartford Library revise its bylaws; Hazen announced that he was stepping down as chairman to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, and he was replaced by Trustee Art Peale early this year. But Peale has since resigned, citing a conflict with other trustees, and Hazen once again has been appointed chairman. Hazen said Monday that his wife no longer is president of the Friends organization, but said he did not know who the new Friends president is.

Hazen said that he has seen much conflict in West Hartford, both internally and with other town officials, but that it’s difficult to describe exactly why that is.

“We’ve been the black sheep forever,” he said. “It’s definitely a fight, that’s for sure, just to get everybody to work together and function as a unit.”

Hazen said that the West Hartford trustees have made an effort to work with other libraries.

“We worked with Quechee. We worked with Hartford,” he said. “I’m not sure where they’re coming from when they say we don’t work with them. It’s hard to do sometimes but we try to get along. It doesn’t seem like sometimes that they want to work with us. Even though they say they do.”

“I don’t necessarily believe all the blame sits in West Hartford either, when it comes to collaboration between the libraries,” DeFelice said during the Dec. 17 meeting.

The West Hartford Library has also lagged behind other town libraries in its ability to attract funds.

In FY10 and FY11, for example, town reports show the West Hartford Library received about $44,000 from the town. But it was the only one of the four library systems that didn’t report any revenue from other sources, such as fundraising or grants, during those two years. Hartford Village Library reported $8,000 from other sources over that two-year period, Wilder reported $33,000, and Quechee Library reported $106,000.

“We definitely need to do some grant writing,” Hazen said. “Quechee is very good, I’ll admit. I’m not a grant writer. That takes a special person to write grants. We just haven’t figured it out.”

Though some at the meeting said the budget cut was sudden and arbitrary, Wooster referred to the Selectboard’s December 2014 budget workshop, at which he expressed concern that the West Hartford library had unexpectedly pulled out of discussions about sharing staff. At that time, Wooster expressed a desire for a substantive discussion about how to bring the libraries into better alignment.

Hazen said there’s a reason West Hartford’s metrics aren’t as good as other libraries.

“We’re the most rural library out there,” he said.

Hazen also said that cutting funding will make the library, and the town’s investment in the building, less cost effective.

“I would think that would upset the taxpayer,” he said. “A brand new building and all that, to have it sit there. They want more programs, but how do you have programs if the doors aren’t open?”

Peale said on Monday that, while he’s had disagreements with the trustees, he doesn’t support cutting the funding.

“Cutting back, we’re going to get to a situation that they’re not going to have a good library there,” he said. “That’s going to hurt too. They don’t really know what they’re talking about, once again.”

Wooster and others mentioned that the building, which is owned by the town, also serves as a community center, and could expand programming that supports that function.

Mariotti volunteered to work with the trustees to come up with a plan that could help restore the library’s funding. Hazen said that he planned to take advantage of the offer, with a goal of presenting a plan to the Selectboard before it finalizes its budget recommendations next year.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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