Blytheville library in danger of closing

Saturday, July 14, 2018

According to Mississippi County Library Systems (MCLS) director Lowell Walters, the Blytheville library may soon have to close its doors permanently.

The building used by MCLS is in an increasing state of disrepair and fixing it will not be cheap. Currently, the HVAC system for the building does not work, and the estimated repair cost is around $90,000. The building's roof is also badly deteriorated and has an estimated repair cost of $200,000. Walters, who has been the director since August 2017, is now letting the public know that something has to change or the city may no longer have a public library.

On Tuesday, at the conclusion of the Reading Rocks party, Walters handed out a questions and answers packet to those in attendance explaining some of the faults in the building, the cost for repairs and suggested solutions. Walters has asked that the citizens who wish to see the library remain open contact their city council representative and ask the city to do something about the building. MCLS operates out of the building; however, the building itself is owned by the City of Blytheville.

"It's the city's building, and I think the city needs to put forth the effort in coming up with the funding for it. They can say, ‘Well, it's the library director's job.' But we just occupy the building. My job is to do programming and things of that nature. The librarianship and the library services that are offered out there are not what they were 20 years ago, and the library really needs to be focusing on programming and providing services for the people. If we owned the building, then yeah I could see me doing more of that grant work. I have issues in Osceola as well…the only building that the library system owns is the Osceola building…to me the City of Blytheville, if they want to have a library building with library services, to me the burden is on the city," Walters said.

The building's lease between the city and MCLS states in Section 4 that, "Lessee shall, at its own expense, maintain the building and premises in as good condition as they are now, natural wear and tear and the action of the elements alone excepted, and shall make repairs of every kind and nature to the building, the common areas, the service entrance, and the interior and exterior of the building,"

The lease was signed in December 1975 and expired in 2000; however, Blytheville Mayor James Sanders said that the agreement between MCLS and the city is that the lease became year to year after expiration, so the lease agreement would still be in effect.

"That's correct but we can no longer maintain something that is not maintainable,” Walters said. “We have been maintaining, and we tried to maintain, and the HVAC doesn't work. You can't maintain a 40-year-old antique car and get a new car. But there is no lease on the building. I just talked to Councilman (Barbara) Brothers, and she said the lease expired back in 2005 or so as far as she has found. There is no agreement with us that is in effect right now…you can't maintain something that is not maintainable, so if it comes to that we will withdraw library services from Blytheville is what we will do."

Walters said that the roof has had issues since 2014 and MCLS began to look towards grant funding; however, many grant entities will not award grants unless MCLS owns their building, meaning the grants have to be sought by the city rather than the library.

The city was awarded $10,000 in 2016, which has not been spent. However, the money is still accounted for, according to Mayor Sanders and Blytheville Chief Financial Officer John Callens. Walters noted that $10,000 is not enough to make the necessary repairs. The HVAC system has been malfunctioning since before Walters arrived but has been steadily getting worse. The last company that attempted work on the system decided that they could not do any more to get it running and decided not to charge MCLS for the $1,600 of work that they did. The repair was attempted last month.

MCLS is actually separate from the county government. The payroll of MCLS is not paid through the county, and MCLS employees are not considered to be Mississippi County employees. The only real connection between the two groups is that the MCLS board members are appointed by the county judge whenever a vacancy occurs. Though MCLS is a separate entity from the county, a majority of their yearly revenue comes from an eighth-cent sales tax that comes from the county. MCLS also receives some money from the state, though it is significantly less than that received from the county. Walters said that for the last calendar year MCLS received $783,000 from the county sales tax and around $90,000 from the state. Walters stated that MCLS has a running balance of around $200,000.

Walters stated that some talk has happened now of a meeting between the council and the MCLS library board; however, a date has not yet been set.

Walters stated that he will not advise the board to close the library for no reason; however, last fall the building almost lost its insurability due to the degradation of the roof. Walters was able to convince the company to allow some temporary repair to stretch their deadline; however, the insurance company could return at any time and revoke the building's insurability. At that point, the building will have to shut down. Walters said that he is at the point now where he is having to look at relocating his staff to other buildings and the possibility of layoffs within the staff. Currently, the Blytheville library serves as the MCLS base of operations; however, if closure could not be avoided, Walters would appoint the Osceola facility to serve that role.

According to Walters, the board has known about the building's issues for some time and dealt with them "quietly." Now the board has decided that it is time to let the public know what the problems are. Walters spoke at the Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon to let businesses be aware of the issue and he and the board have met with Mayor Sanders twice about the building's issues. However, only recently has the information been made more "public." Additionally, the library has to close early if the building temperatures get too hot during the day due to the HVAC system no longer functioning.

Walters stated that the board had not previously asked him to "keep things quiet" but it "was just common sense not to incite people" about the issues the library was dealing with.

The CN asked if the issues had been made public last year when he started if Walters believed officials might be closer to a solution. Walters responded, "Well, that could have been the case but I was a brand new director. I had other things to do and I didn't even know the situation. That wouldn't have been good either. You have to get your act together before you make some issues out of something…you have to have your story straight…the people in town here have known about this for at least four years."

Walters also noted that he had not been to a city council meeting to discuss the library issue because he attended one for BLI and got the impression that he needed to attend a committee meeting to have a real discussion. He stated that he contacted Finance Committee Chairman Stan Parks in April about attending a meeting and Parks said that he would talk to Sanders and never got back with Walters.

Sanders told the CN that he wants to help the library and does not want to see it leave the city; however, the GIF grants, like the one given to the city in 2016, are no longer available. He has also been instructed by the state to spend the money that was given in 2016 but has never received a request from MCLS about what to do with the money. Currently, he said the only thing he can do is seek more grants to aid the library because the city is not budgeted to aid them in any type of repair project.

gwilliams@blythevillecourier.com