Dozens of citizens filled the meeting room and hallway of the Akron Borough office last week, pushing Borough Council members to restore funding for the Ephrata Public Library in its proposed 2023 budget.
Borough Council approved its 2023 preliminary budget at the Nov. 14 council meeting, cutting the annual $20,000 contribution to the library to zero.
The library had requested all municipalities in their service area, including Ephrata Borough, Ephrata Township and Clay Township, to add 20% to its annual contribution to cover rising expenses in 2023. Clay Township announced at its Nov. 22 supervisors meeting that it was providing a one-time inflation-related payment of $5,000 in addition to its annual contribution of $22,250.
Akron council members commented at its Nov. 14 meeting that the library contribution was being eliminated to keep from raising taxes on borough residents. The proposed balanced budget includes revenues and expenses at $3.42 million with no tax hike.
The news of the library contribution elimination resulted in condemnation from residents as the board was challenged through social media and at previous meetings, leading up to the Nov. 28 council meeting.
Council President Nathan Imhoff read a statement before the council meeting, saying he hoped to “clear up any misunderstandings or mistruths that have been making the rounds” in the public regarding the library situation.
Imhoff said everyone on the Akron Borough Council “believes in the importance” of having a public library serving the community, but the decision to eliminate the funding was done to balance the budget and avoid raising taxes during a “fiscally turbulent time.” He said the decision was not made with any agenda against the library.
“We were faced with many infrastructure projects that are in dire need to be completed in 2023,” Imhoff said in his statement. “These projects took precedent in all our decision making regarding the budget. When it came time to find the money to cover the expenses for these projects, all avenues of revenue were looked at, including pulling the donation money from the Ephrata Public Library.”
Imhoff said the council will “reassess” its finances throughout 2023, and if there’s a fund surplus at the end of the year it would consider giving a “non-budgeted donation” to the library. He said before a donation will be made, the council will ask library representatives to provide suggestions for specific needs or projects to be used with the donation.
“We on council want to work with the Ephrata Public Library while keeping all taxpayers of Akron in mind,” Imhoff said.
The council will vote on the proposed budget at its Dec. 12 meeting.
Council listened to public comments for around an hour and a half as most of the commenters urged the members to change their mind on the library money in the budget.
Michael Morris of Akron brought up comments made at the council’s Oct. 10 meeting made by Council Member Paul Swangren Jr. regarding his questions over a women’s health class held at the library that dealt with sexual issues. According to the posted meeting notes, Swangren requested a line-item review of the library finances that “would align with conservative values.”
Morris said he disagreed with turning the funding of the library into a political issue by the council members and that it was “not the council’s job to push conservative values.” He criticized Swangren for his comments on the library programming, saying they were “based on hearsay and downright lies.”
“This town is not your playground for a conservative crusade,” Morris said. “The Salem witch hunts were not an event in history meant to be looked at as a template by which to live your life. No one is coming for conservative values. They’re coming for ignorance.”
Morris said besides the ideological disagreements regarding the board’s decision, he said the “fiscal responsibility” of the board was an important issue for him. He said as the country is potentially entering a recession, less funds will be coming into the borough and will require more fiscal responsibility in the budget.
But Morris said defunding the library “further hurts the community” through the possible loss of staff or the reduction of resources for the community. He pointed to entrepreneurship programs that the library runs.
“The library’s the only donation that Akron makes that has the capacity to create an infinite number of new jobs,” Morris said.
Deb Hansell of Akron said she was “outraged” that council was considering eliminating library funding considering that more than half of town residents have library cards and use the facilities. Hansell said reinstating the $20,000 would increase the budget by 1.02%, or an additional $6.93 on her tax bill, while the library’s original request of $24,000 would raise taxes by 1.23%, or an additional $8.36 in her taxes.
“I can barely purchase a new book for my daughter for $6.93,” she said. “Checking out two books at the library during the year more than covers that tax increase for me.”
Akron resident Rachel Martin said a library is an integral part of a thriving community. Martin said she grew up in an Amish family in Ronks, and she can still remember taking the bus into Lancaster City as a child to go to the library and that it “gave us worlds that we didn’t have any other way.”
Martin proceeded to give the council the $12.01 she would owe if there were a tax increase to include the library funding, plus an additional $2.40 for the increase the library was looking for.
“That doesn’t even hurt my grocery bill,” Martin said. “That was change that was lying in a bowl on the dresser in the bedroom that my husband puts out every night when he empties his pockets.”
Several people at the meeting voiced support for the council’s decision regarding the library funding and budgetary issues.
Former Akron Mayor George Wolf said no one from the town would be kept from using the library if the borough stopped its contribution.
“I appreciate you guys sitting up front there going over the budget and knowing what we have to do,” Wolf said.
Glen Beiler of Akron said he wanted to “commend” the council for their decisions on the overall budget and for “putting a priority on the taxpayers in the community.”
“I think you have a responsibility to the taxpayers, whatever your decision ultimately is,” Beiler said.
Pam Musser, a member of the Akron Borough Authority, said she would support whatever decision the council makes, saying they were the “stewards of our taxpayer dollars.” Musser said she was planning on donating her own money to the library and encouraged its regular users to also donate instead of using taxpayer dollars for funding.
Musser also criticized some of the residents singling out council members by name for their decision.
“I think it’s totally inappropriate to come to a meeting like this and to personally attack the people who sit up front and serve,” Musser said.
Some residents asked whether ending Akron’s funding could lead to cuts in state funding to the library.
Ed Miller, an Akron resident who is employed by the Library System of Lancaster County, said the state code does not determine how much funding a municipality is liable to give to a library. Miller said state aid to libraries is determined by 10 different factors, including circulation numbers, how many books are loaned to other libraries and how much local funding they raise.
Miller said a cut in municipal funding can lead to a cut in state funding through a “very complex formula.” He said Akron’s decision to eliminate funding could also impact the decisions of other municipalities funding the Ephrata Public Library and lead to curtailed services for borough residents.
“There’s a lot of power in a good example, but there’s also power in a bad example,” Miller said. “And I think the other municipalities may be watching quite closely about what happens here tonight.”
Council Member Randall Justice said he appreciated the concerns raised by residents and “speaking from your heart.” Justice said “different lenses or priorities” among the council members can complicate the budgeting process.
Justice said his concern around the library funding didn’t come from the programming being provided but instead from how programs are funded and communication issues with library staff.
“To take any one council member statement and assign it to all of council is fundamentally unfair,” Justice said. “I don’t think you’re trying to be unfair, but we’re a collection of people reaching conclusions based on different criteria…This was not a politically motivated decision, unless you want to call trying to balance the budget politically motivated.”