CENTRALIA — Kathryn De la Rosa recalls hanging around Centralia’s library at the end of the 1930s, when it was located on the city hall’s second floor. Once, the librarian called De la Rosa’s mother to check whether De la Rosa’s book was age-appropriate.
“You don’t get that in big-city libraries,” said De la Rosa, now 73.
De la Rosa, currently serving as vice president of the Centralia library board, would like her town’s library to remain independent. But because the library can only tax property owners within the 1965 city limits, the library has been facing a budget deficit the last three years. At its last meeting held Nov. 16, the Boone County Library District board decided to study whether bringing the Centralia library into the regional system would make sense from its perspective. The board decided that if the study results support including the Centralia library, it will then ask the Centralia board if its members would consider a merger.
The county board’s decision to go forward with the study came as a response to the Centralia library board’s initial request to collect tax revenues from 126 property owners who live in Centralia but pay taxes to the Boone County Library District because they live outside the 1965 limits. The Centralia library estimated that such an arrangement would generate $6,000 by the end of 2006. These funds would help offset the library’s deficit spending that’s been eating into its reserve funds.
“They’ve been doing a great job providing library services with the budget they have,” said Tom Richards, vice president of the Columbia Library District board. “But they are facing a long-term financial problem, and we should be considering how we might be able to help them provide a long-term answer.”
Richards said that there is urgency to the issue because the regional library system is in the process of determining its operating budget for the next 10 years, and a merger would have financial implications.
“If we don’t consider it now, they might be locked out for the next 10 years,” he said.
Some Centralia residents, such as De la Rosa, are attached to the Centralia library because of its history. Her mother, Willetta Turner, joined the Mid-Week Club in the mid-1930s, a women’s book club that had secured access to the second floor of the city hall for library use.
The Mid-Week Club first established a library in 1899 with book donations from its members. The club’s dream was fulfilled in 1903 when the library was officially recognized as the Centralia Public Library.
The Mid-Week Club women struggled to keep the library open during World Wars I and II. The library relocated several times until 1998, when library district voters approved to build the current 5,375-square-foot structure.
Centralia library provides services to 3,758 Boone County residents in the Centralia, Hallsville and Sturgeon areas. Today, of the 2,492 library card holders, 1,390 live in the Centralia Library District and 1,102 live outside the district. The library has 20 computers and holds 30,711 materials with a circulation last year of 75,984.
The staff — four librarians and two student librarians — work part time and without benefits, including director Patt Olsen. She said cutting salaries has meant greater difficulty finding professional staff along with the possibility of having to cut hours. About four years ago, a community survey led the library to expand its hours, but the longer hours are now being reconsidered. The library operates 11 hours a day on weekdays and eight hours on Saturdays. It is closed on Sundays.
“The last thing you want to cut is material collections,” Olsen said. “But eventually all things are affected — your book material collections, technology. You’re cutting staff, the whole nine yards.”
Centralia residents have mixed opinions on a possible merger. Library patron Emilie Moore said while she would need more information on what a merger would mean, she trusts library officials from both Centralia and the Boone County Library District to make the right decision, because libraries shouldn’t be in competition. As a card member of both the Centralia and Columbia libraries, Moore said she doesn’t see much of a difference in services — though she acknowledged she goes to the libraries for their book collections only.
“They have a much larger collection in Columbia, but you also have to think about the readership,” she said. “You don’t need to fill the shelves with books that are so unusual that they don’t get checked out very often. In this library (Centralia), they have a feeling of what gets checked out. In Columbia, there is more variety of people.”
Moore said she’d like to see the Centralia library able to support itself. “If they have financial problems, they might need to combine so that this operation stays in the black,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t like to see it fail because they do a great job.”
Another resident, Ann Spears, has lived in Centralia for the past 10 years, and her children visit the library regularly to do their homework. For Spears, merging would give the library the funding it needs for staff and also for expanding its reference books.
“I know that the library had to cut people’s hours because they don’t have the funding,” Spears said. “(A merger) is a good idea because it would give the library funding to expand.”
Dave Logue lived in Centralia before moving to Mexico, Mo., but he continues to use the Centralia library.
“I’d hate to see a change,” Logue said. “They do such a good job that there’s no reason for something else. They run the library to be fun for the local people.”
Logue said that if he still lived in Centralia, he would rather vote for a tax increase. Centralia’s last tax increase was 10 years ago, and the Centralia Library District currently operates on a similar operating tax rate as the Boone County Library District: Centralia has a tax of $.2893 per $100 of assessed valuation for its residents, and the Boone County Library District has a tax of $.2986 per $100 of assessed valuation.
“A tax increase is inevitable, yes. But we want to make sure we take all the steps we can before going to taxpayers. We’ll hold public forums and get public discussion,” said Olsen, Centralia library director.
Centralia Library Board President Lorry Myers said she would look at the merger proposal with an open mind, but Centralia residents would make that decision.
“We have a history to be stubborn and independent,” she said. “The history of the library makes you determined because your ancestors were determined. The ladies (of the Mid-Week Club) went through a lot of obstacles. The library was shot down a couple of times, and they fought to bring it back.” Myers said the board will work to inform its citizens of the boundary issues and look at how libraries in similar situations are operating.
A proposal from the Boone County Library District will be made after considering the legal feasibility of a merger and implications for both sides. The board said that if the proposal dies, it could discuss creating reciprocal agreements for shared services.