Council bill backs library Members want to keep branch in Street open

February 14, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

The controversy over the possible closing of the tiny Highland library in Street heated up last week when four members of the County Council introduced a bill to prevent the Harford County ++ Library board of trustees from closing a branch without the council's approval.

"I felt the library [board] was developing some plans in isolation from the larger community," said County Council President Jeffrey Wilson, who introduced the bill with council members Barry Glassman, R-District D; Susan Heselton, R-District A; and Philip J. Barker, D-District F.

Mr. Wilson, the former president of the Highland Community Association, helped get the Highland library established in 1985.

"Highland was never meant to be a regional outlet. It was meant to be one service interfaced with others in a unique setting," he said, adding that it is part of a community center.

The library fills a small part of a former school that is now home to the Highland Community Association. The 85-year-old building, renamed Highland Commons, also houses a senior center, a nursery school, the Street post office and a food pantry.

"My feeling is that Highland is a special model and it's what we need to emulate in our communities," said Mr. Glassman, whose council district includes much of the northern county. "We need to look at putting more of our libraries in village centers like this, rather than away from people."

The library is open only 13 hours a week and has a collection of about 1,000 items. It is used primarily by Highland community residents, children who attend the preschool and their mothers, and residents of the senior center.

Last fall, after the new full-service Whiteford library had opened four miles away, the library board of trustees announced plans to close the Highland library and move its collection and its part-time staff to Whiteford.

Philip Place, director of the Harford County library system, said the closing had been considered for some time, especially after pressure to cut library costs grew in 1991. He said the Whiteford branch was meant to bring improved and expanded service to the northern part of the county.

But after an outcry from Highland citizens at a public hearing in January, the library tabled plans for its closing, at least until its February meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday.

"We've been trying to work with the community in good faith," said Bruce G. Berkey, chairman of the board of library trustees. "We certainly don't mean to be adversarial, but how thin do you spread your resources and still get benefit from them?"

Mr. Place has said that closing Highland, which costs about $25,000 a year to run, would save about $12,000 to $13,000 in operating costs. Its two part-time staff members would be transferred to Whiteford, where the library hours would be extended from 30 to about 36 a week.

Jim Richardson, a former library trustee and president of the Highland Community Association, says the community is determined to keep the community center open and maintain the library as a part of it. The old brick building served as a high school until 1950 and as an elementary school until 1983.

The association rents the building from the county for $1 a year and in turn leases a portion of it to the library for $9,000, to help cover heating and other utility costs. The association has offered to reduce the library's rent from $9,000 a year to $5,100 and help staff it with volunteers.

Mr. Berkey said the library trustees are expected to vote on the compromise at their meeting Thursday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Berkey called the County Council's proposal "the battleship firing the warning salvo. It makes it pretty clear they don't want the board making decisions like closing branches."

The proposal, which was introduced by a majority of four council persons, is scheduled for a public hearing March 16.

"There are a lot of factors to consider," said Mr. Berkey. "Mr. Wilson's points are well-taken: [Highland] has a strong focus on the community, and the community likes having it there. But I haven't heard anyone from the council out trying to get more funds that are necessary to make the system work. In my experience, if you have a problem, you try to find a solution."

Mr. Wilson, who in a Dec. 4 letter to Mr. Place said he would oppose the branch's closing "in every way I can," has criticized the library as not being creative enough with its resources.

He also wrote to Mr. Berkey, warning of a financial backlash if Highland were to close. "I think when you raise the specter of closing a community's facility, you invite the people of Harford County to make a closer scrutiny of how you're spending their money in other ways," he wrote.

Mr. Berkey said he is not opposed to small, community-oriented branches, but added that they aren't necessarily cost-effective.

"I think the concept sounds good, but if you look at libraries around the state, including Baltimore County [which this week announced it will close nine branches], it can dilute your services," he said. "If you want that to work, you have to provide the funds."

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