Hancock County

Supervisors get an earful about proposed changes to library system

Hancock County Library System Executive Director Courtney Thomas waits for the meeting of the Board of Supervisors to begin. She’s surrounded by supporters wearing blue.
Hancock County Library System Executive Director Courtney Thomas waits for the meeting of the Board of Supervisors to begin. She’s surrounded by supporters wearing blue. jphampton@sunherald.com

The Hancock County Board of Supervisors has several thorny issues to resolve if it wants to reorganize the county library system.

Three Bay St. Louis City Council members, for example, asked the board at its meeting Thursday to continue with the present agreement for the library system for one more year because most of the council members and the mayor are new.

“Bay St. Louis and Diamondhead have new boards, new feet on the ground,” said Ward 1 Councilman Doug Seal, one of just two incumbents on the seven-member Bay St. Louis Council. “We trying to do a new budget and a new contract for library services. It will be a tough thing to swing that.”

Seal said he wasn’t speaking for the entire council when he asked the board to extend the agreement another year. However, Ward 3 Councilman Jeffrey Reed, the other incumbent, and Councilman-at-large Gary Knoblock had similar concerns.

“We just got pounded with a lot of information,” Knoblock said. “Let’s proceed real cautiously and give us some more time.”

Board President Blaine LaFontaine, though, said there was no guarantee a similar situation wouldn’t exist next year.

“Waveland is in an election next year and the following year there’s another election,” he said. “Elections tend to complicate bringing people together for tough decisions and solutions.”

Then there is the question of whether the proposed seven-person board to oversee the system is fair. The library system now has a five-person board with two trustees each appointed by the supervisors and Bay St. Louis and one by Waveland. Under the proposed agreement, the supervisors would appoint four trustees and Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Diamondhead would appoint one each. There is some question whether the supervisors can create a seven-person board and they have asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion.

Bay St. Louis and Waveland officials seem to believe that Diamondhead isn’t paying as much as their cities are and so should not have equal representation.

“Bay St. Louis and Waveland have skin in the game, and Diamondhead, they really haven’t paid their fair share,” said Waveland Ward 1 Alderman Jeremy Burke. No one spoke for Diamondhead, but LaFontaine said Diamondhead contributes more than the $20,000 the other city officials were giving them credit for.

LaFontaine said the Diamondhead branch has operating expenses of about $255,000.

“The county tax collected out of just the city of Diamondhead millage generates about $233,000,” he said. “Diamondhead appropriates $20,000. So it almost covers their operating expenses.”

The county pays 70 percent of the library budget, with the other 30 percent coming from the cities. But part of the county’s money, Waveland Alderman Shane LaFontaine said, comes from taxes collected in the city.

“That’s why we’re here to try to figure out that 30 percent number,” said Supervisor LaFontaine.

The county also is proposing reducing the library system budget from over $2 million to about $1.5 million, which LaFontaine said would allow the cities to reduce their library taxes.

The county also has a ways to go to convince the library system that the changes are necessary. The system operates libraries in Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Diamondhead, Kiln and Pearlington. The new agreement would keep all of those open.

“You’re proposing an entire new library system,” said Courtney Thomas, the executive director of the system. “The Hancock County Library System has a long and storied history. We are an award-winning library system. There is nothing wrong with our library system. The only reason to propose something new is when the old thing is broken.”

She said the system is the best in the state.

“And you want to get rid of that library system and start a new one,” she said. “The question is, Why?”

LaFontaine said supervisors were trying to resolve the question of equitable funding.

Thomas said if the library board is expanded to seven, three should be appointed by the supervisors and two each by Waveland and Bay St. Louis.

“Right now, Diamondhead has indicated they don’t want any part of the agreement,” she said. “If they opt in, then we go back to the drawing board and figure out what their representation should be.”

Thomas said Bay St. Louis and Waveland should get more representation because “they are funding at the max.”

She said the new structure isn’t necessary to resolve questions of funding and representation.

“You don’t have to dismantle the Hancock Library System to do it,” she said.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton