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Library director wants to keep more branches open
East Hall, Clermont branches likely to close
Rising East Hall High School sophomore Elisha Campbell, 15, reads while sister Amanda, 14, a rising East Hall Middle School eighth-grader colors Wednesday at the East Hall library. Hall County’s proposed fiscal year 2012 budget may close the East Hall branch. Other branches could see reduced hours. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Budget talks

Board of Commissioners public hearing
When: 6 tonight
Where: Georgia Mountains Center, 301 Main St., Gainesville

Commission District 4 discussion
When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday
Where: Fair Street Neighborhood Center, 715 Fair St., Gainesville

Commission District 1 discussion
When: 7-8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Flowery Branch Depot, 5302 Railroad Ave., Flowery Branch

Board of Commissioners meeting
What: Scheduled to approve budget
When: 6 p.m. June 23
Where: Georgia Mountains Center, 301 Main St., Gainesville.

Additional public hearings will be scheduled if commissioners decide to consider a tax increase.

Money is tight, and library closures are likely. Still, the director of Hall County's Library System is hopeful he can continue to serve the majority of county residents.

Even in a hopeful situation, though, the libraries in East Hall and Clermont likely will close come
July 1.

Previously, budget discussions for the Hall County government's upcoming fiscal year centered around closing all but the branches in downtown Gainesville and on Spout Springs Road.

But Library System Director Adrian Mixson now says it could also be possible to keep open, on a part-time basis, the libraries at Blackshear Place and Murrayville.

Under a plan Mixson could present to his governing board next week, the libraries at Gainesville and Spout Springs would operate six days a week, while the libraries in Murrayville and Blackshear Place would open four days weekly. The plan, he says, would allow him to absorb as much as a 20 percent reduction to his budget, serve about 85 percent of the county's population and leave the county's most-used libraries open.

But even a best-case scenario will mean Mixson has to lay off employees, though he won't yet say how many.

"I want to be able to look (my employees) in the face and tell them that," Mixson said. "... I have enough people with upset stomachs as it is."

In the East Hall branch Wednesday, patrons were also nervous about the future of their library.

Word that the branch may close moved Grace Tiffany to action. The 61-year-old Lula resident sat at one of the library's computers researching ways to write a petition. She planned to use the information in a last-ditch effort to keep her library open.

And she planned to speak at tonight's public hearing on the Hall County budget at the Georgia Mountains Center.

"I am very livid about this," she said.

Edith Bishop, who called herself an avid reader, couldn't understand why the East Hall branch would be on the chopping block.

"There are always people in here," she said. "Every time I come in here, there are always people in here."

Mixson says his recommendation for which libraries should close centers on use: numbers of visitors, borrowed books and computer users.

With some 35,240 visitors, the East Hall Library had the second-lowest number of visitors in 2010, above only Clermont, which had fewer than 10,000 visits, Mixson's data showed.

In contrast, Blackshear Place and Spout Springs each served more than 100,000 people last year. More than 200,000 people visited the Gainesville branch.

If their small library closes, the nearest branch to both Tiffany and Bishop, a 75-year-old Lula resident, would be in Gainesville. Like a number of East Hall patrons, both women said they did not like the thought of having to use that particular branch, citing concerns with parking and the likelihood that two closed branches would crowd the others.

"Where's everybody going to sit?" asked Judy Patrick.
Judy Cantrell, who visited with Patrick, had other motives for using the East Hall branch.

Cantrell uses a walker and sometimes requires a wheelchair or a scooter to get around. She said the computers at the one-level East Hall library were easier to use than at those on the second level of the Gainesville branch.

"I can walk right through the door with my walker," said the Athens Highway resident.

Aside from its proximity to Lula residents, the East Hall Library serves as the only branch in the county with accommodations for people with special needs.

The library is easily accessible from the parking lot and has audio and visual equipment specially made for people with disabilities.

Support groups for people with disabilities have regular meetings at the East Hall branch. Parents of children with developmental disabilities take advantage of the toys made especially for their children's needs.

The branch's dedication to accommodating people with disabilities was the main reason it was selected as the meeting place for the local chapter of the Georgia Council of the Blind, founding member Judy Presley said.

"It works out so much better for us to be able to meet there," said Presley, who started the local chapter with her husband about 15 years ago. "We drive there (from Helen), and we also have a lady who drives from Stephens County. Having an organization like that enhances your quality of life so much to be able to keep up with the latest technology, the latest information and resources."

Mixson says most of that equipment will be moved to a small meeting room in the Gainesville library when East Hall closes.

"It'll be considerably more cramped," Mixson said.

"We may be doing stuff on the floor here (at Gainesville)."

The future home of Presley's meetings hinges on the decisions of two major boards that will meet this month.

Some 85 percent of the library system's funding comes from the county government's general fund.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners owns the library buildings and determines the system's funding,. But the library board decides how to allocate that money.

The board likely will hold a special meeting next week to decide the system's fate.

"It's going to be really hard," board member Joy Bolt said. "We've got to sit down around the table and try to figure out what to do and have as much open as we can for the community."

In the meantime, everybody worries.

Presley worries how Georgia Council of the Blind members will fare if their meetings are moved to Gainesville. Elderly members with macular degeneration may have difficulty walking from downtown parking decks to the branch when parking isn't available on the street, she said.

Bolt worries about having to make such important decisions in such a short time frame. The budget year begins July 1, and the board won't meet for at least several more days.

"The board hasn't made any official decisions yet," she said. "The problem is, it's got to be done so quickly. ... I haven't even been able to look at everything that we've gotten in the past few days, carefully."

Mixson worries about having to lay off employees, not just the face-to-face discussion but also the long-term effects.

"It may take years to rebuild some of the services," Mixson said. "If you lose people you spent a lot of money training, then they go somewhere else to work. The county develops a reputation of not necessarily being a good employer. ...You have to ask how many people do you really want to lose that you've spent money training.

"You can do a lot with a trained person. It takes a long time to get somebody new to the same point as that person you've lost, you know?"