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Supporters: Manatee libraries are ‘vital,’ not luxury

BRADENTON -- Patrons must speak now or risk watching libraries become the next service on the government chopping block, supporters and public officials said Monday.

During a town hall meeting at the Manatee County Central Library, those with a stake in the future of libraries agreed budget constraints threaten what they consider a basic public service.

“The library is not a luxury,” said county resident Alicia Long, a volunteer at the Braden River branch. “The libraries are vital. They are the last thing that should be cut.”

Marianne Barnebey, a Bradenton city councilwoman and the chairwoman of the library’s board of trustees, called libraries a final opportunity for self-education.

She said the state government nearly wiped out all funding for libraries last year before agreeing at the last minute to budget $21.2 million. Without state funding, local libraries cannot access federal funds, she said.

“I am very scared about what is going to happen this year with the state budget,” Barnebey said. “We need the support of everyone.”

The Manatee County Library Services department held the meeting to share the results of surveys and focus groups it is using to craft a new five-year strategic plan. The plan, required for state funding, will be completed in April and sent to Tallahassee in October.

Ava Ehde, the Island Branch supervisor, said the plan aims to identify “what is the most vital of our resources ... and then focus on those.”

Survey respondents suggested the library do a better job marketing its offerings, provide more computers and more comfortable reading areas and install self-checkout lanes.

During a public comment period Monday, discussion turned to two controversial topics: a rumored move of the Central Library to the DeSoto Square mall and comments by county Administrator Ed Hunzeker that “there is no law that says we have to have libraries.”

“I know he was trying to shock us ... but it is true,” library foundation member Eileen Hoffner said of Hunzeker’s comments, which came at a Dec. 2 Tiger Bay Club luncheon. “We need to be a little bit more vocal about how important libraries are.”

Paul Staub, a resident of the Westminster Shores and Towers, said he moved downtown to be close to the Central Library and opposes any move.

The county confirmed in October that it is discussing the acquisition of the former Dillard’s store in the mall and could move the Central Library there.

“The location of the library is important to me and a lot of other residents of Westminster Towers. ... I feel very strongly about this,” Staub said.

County commission Chairman Carol Whitmore said the move has not been discussed recently.

“It hasn’t gone any further. I just want to dispel that rumor right now,” she said.

County Neighborhood Services Manager Cheri Coryea said the county is still talking to the mall’s owner, Simon Group, but that no decision is imminent.

Linda O’Connor Levy, the library’s outreach services supervisor, said the library system welcomed 1.2 million vistors during fiscal year 2010, which ended in September. That’s the most in the system’s history, she said.

Coryea said the library system will begin searching for a new manager late this month. Former Manager John Van Berkel was dismissed in December after 20 years with the county. A new manager should be in place by late spring, Coryea said.

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