The Wilkes County commissioners are again considering withdrawing from a regional library system that also includes Ashe and Watauga counties.

“Notice to withdraw from the Appalachian Regional Library system” (ARL) was an action item on the agenda for the county commissioners’ meeting Tuesday night.

The meeting was after the deadline for the May 5 print edition of the newspaper, but Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said Monday that he expected a motion tabling withdrawal and instead establishing a committee of 10-12 Wilkes residents to study the matter.

Settle said the committee would make recommendations to the commissioners on how to provide library services for all Wilkes residents. He said he expected the committee to include three members of the Wilkes County Library Advisory Board, including Commissioner Casey Joe Johnson as committee chairman.

Settle had the withdrawal notice included on the agenda and said early last week that he expected commissioners to vote on it at the May 4 meeting. He also said he favored leaving the ARL and operating the library as a county government department due to the Wilkes Library Advisory Board’s lack of authority.

After hearing from citizens opposed to withdrawing from the ARL, Settle said late last week that he wanted the matter tabled so concerns could be addressed through negotiations with Jane Blackburn, ARL director of libraries.

Blackburn said Friday that by law and definition, the regional library board can’t give authority to county advisory boards. She said that when a regional board appoints a director of libraries, it gives that person all executive powers within the regional library system, including the hiring process.

To withdraw from a regional library system, written notice must be given to the regional library board, other member governmental units and the state on or before July 1. The withdrawal isn’t effective until the following June 30.

Funds designated by Wilkes County government and other sources for the Wilkes County Library in downtown North Wilkesboro and the Traphill Library go to the West Jefferson-based ARL. Blackburn said it all is disbursed for the Wilkes and Traphill libraries.

The ARL board consists of four members each from the Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga library advisory boards. Wilkes representatives on the ARL board are Becky Ball, Beth Foster Tharrington and Dr. Bill Davis, with a vacancy due to Carol Childers’ recent death. Each county advisory board consists of five to 12 people.

Blackburn said that in addition to making recommendations, this representation of advisory boards on a regional board is how advisory boards participate in governance of the regional system.

In addition to Ball, Tharrington and Davis and Johnson as commissioner member, Wilkes advisory board members are Gwen Minton (chairman), Ola Norman (vice chairman), Julie Faw Church and Sharon Carter Underwood. Views of the Wilkes advisory board members on withdrawing from the regional system appear to be mixed.

Advisory and regional board members are appointed by their county commissioners.

Settle said that when he was commissioner representative on the Wilkes Library Advisory Board, regional library officials brought a proposed Wilkes County Library budget to the advisory board “to rubber stamp with no discussion” each year.

He said the advisory board’s complete lack of authority over the Wilkes library budget and who is hired as Wilkes County librarian are primary concerns driving interest in withdrawing from the regional system.

Settle said the issue of hiring a Wilkes County librarian is timely because Aimee James, county librarian since late 2018, resigned earlier this month to take a public library position in Southern Pines.

The Wilkes commissioners have discussed leaving the ARL before, typically in budget talks this time of year. It came up when Blackburn requested library pay raises in 2018, based on results of a salary study. The increases, funded with $86,000 more annually over three years, were approved. The 23 library employees in Wilkes would become county government employees if Wilkes left the regional system.

Another budget issue is the Traphill Library, the only branch library in Wilkes. Blackburn has publicly suggested closing the Traphill Library due to its comparatively low usage. In 2017, she said per patron operational costs were $4.28 for the Wilkes County Library and $15.78 for the Traphill Library.

The commissioners helped prevent the Traphill Library’s closure by funding it separately from the main library in 2013. This has continued.

Settle said he and others interested in withdrawing from the regional system want more public libraries in the county and aren’t anti-library. He noted Wilkes County government expenditures on the main library building.

This fiscal year, Wilkes County government budgeted $571,500 for the Wilkes County Library and $28,931 for the Traphill Library. This $600,431 was 77% of total revenue listed in the Wilkes library budget.

Other revenue listed in the Wilkes library budget this year includes fines/fees ($20,000), donations ($23,310), $22,467 (other grants) $35,000 (endowment funds) and $5,000 from Town of North Wilkesboro. This year’s Wilkes library budget also includes $70,397 from a Wilkes library fund balance of about $300,000.

Blackburn said she believed but wasn’t sure that all of these funds, including about $300,000 left in the Wilkes library fund balance, would stay with Wilkes if it left the regional system. She emphasized that there are funds in the ARL budget spent on Wilkes not reflected in the Wilkes library budget.

Blackburn said it includes nearly $46,000 this year for technology, such as Internet service, online security, a platform for e-book exchanges, software and mobile hotspots for Wilkes. She said it also includes funds for equipment, periodical subscriptions, postage, mileage reimbursement, vehicle maintenance and more.

Blackburn said being in a regional system saves money through economies of scale and by sharing costs and resources. For example, she said, ARL libraries get better prices for computer hardware and software. She said the regional system funds internet service for all of the libraries and the digital platform that allows them to share e-books. An ARL courier service makes books at any ARL libraries available in all three counties.

Phil Trew, director of planning and development for the Boone-based High Country Council of Governments, prepared information on advantages of Wilkes remaining in the ARL in 2019. Trew also cited economies of scale, including ARL positions for management planning, accounting and information technology (including website management) in all three counties.

Trew said another advantage is membership in the N.C. Cardinal statewide consortium, which provides staff training and allows local people to borrow materials from libraries in any of 50 member counties in the state. Wilkes would have to pay $10,000 a year to be in Cardinal if it left ARL.

Each county gets a block grant from the state (about $63,000 in 2020) and an additional grant based on population and per capital income. Each regional system also gets another of the county block grants to spend among all member counties, which Trew said means about $20,000 a year for Wilkes. He noted that ARL staff obtain and administer grants for libraries in the three counties.

State Librarian Timothy Owens said in an interview that if Wilkes left the ARL, the two public libraries in the county would lose the benefits provided by the extra block grant the regional system gets. Owens concurred with Blackburn and Trew about the economies of scale, ready access to library materials in participating libraries and other advantages of being in a regional system. He said the centralized administrative and IT support allows local libraries to focus on community needs.

The ARL exists under an interlocal agreement approved by the commissioners of Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga counties in 1979, revised in 2012 and up for renewal in 2022.

North Carolina has 12 regional library systems covering about 40 counties, including Yadkin, Surry and Alleghany in the Elkin-based Northwestern Regional Library system. Other counties, including Caldwell and Alexander, operate their libraries as county departments.

Under the revised agreement, library buildings or any other ARL real estate is owned by the county in which the real estate is located, unless two or more counties agree otherwise.

A report on a Wilkes Library Advisory Board meeting in the ARL board’s May 15, 2019, minutes indicate bylaws of the local advisory board at one time gave it authority to choose the county librarian and approve budgets. The minutes said the state library sent a suggested revision that removed this authority from advisory boards to comply with state regulations and that a revised version was being prepared. It was later approved.

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