Petersburg’s borough assembly Monday took no action on a discussion over alternatives to public funding for the local public library. But they did vote down a move to give the Parks and Recreation director more control over setting fees in those facilities.
Assembly member Taylor Norheim initially asked to have a discussion on privatizing the public library, but he started off the meeting by asking to change that language.
“I would like to change the name of discussion item A from privatization of the library to discussion of possible alternative funding for the library,” Norheim said.
Norheim apologized for the wording of the agenda item because he did not mean to suggest turning the operation over to a private company. He explained he was concerned with a potential loss of state money in the borough budget and he wanted to look at shifting the burden of funding onto private residents.
“It wasn’t really so much privatizing as maybe finding someone in town who can afford to purchase it or even better yet donate a bunch of money to keep these things floating, because I mean it benefits nobody to have the doors shut on these facilities,” he explained. “And more or less it was kind of like trying to get the community to understand that there is a massive amount of money that potentially won’t be coming here anymore and everybody kind of needs to be aware of that.”
Funding of the library was only a discussion item, it was not part of the overall budget review and the assembly took no action on it. A draft budget proposed by borough staff does not reduce hours at the library yet. That could change depending on decision out of the state capital this year.
Several local residents and members of the library advisory board came out strongly against any move away from public funding.
“Petersburg isn’t like a lot of other communities in Southeast Alaska because we haven’t compromised or sold out what our ancestors built,” said Joshua Adams. “That we would even be considering the privatization of our library or any other of the public services that we offer is dangerous. It’s a slippery slope toward losing our community services to corporate greed.”
Others highlighted the importance of the local library and the access to information it provides to anyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
Assembly member Jeigh Stanton Gregor thanked the members of the public who came out to testify.
“I admit I’m a little frustrated,” Stanton Gregor said. “You wasted a lot of time out of your day because of this poor wording of how this look. Everything everybody said today I completely agree with. It’s not supposed to turn a profit. The voters voted to fund a new library. So the idea of selling it or giving it to someone else doesn’t make sense. It’s like the oxymoron to the term public library, public use, free use. The most vulnerable parts of our population have a place they can go and be safe and warm and read or look up whatever they need to online.”
The assembly did take action on another of Norheim’s proposals but only to vote it down. Norheim sought assembly approval to direct staff to draft a new local ordinance. He wanted to give Parks and Recreation director Chandra Thornburg the authority to set fees for the gym, pool and other facilities with approval by the borough manager. He explained that also was idea that arose from state funding uncertainty.
“I thought that if we gave Chandra more direct control of prices that could react quicker to catastrophic budget change,” Norheim said.
Most fees and charges are set with three readings of an ordinance by the assembly, including a public hearing. That allows for public involvement in those decisions.
Norhiem didn’t have support from the rest of the assembly.
“Right now as it stands if we’re going to be changing rates that’s six weeks worth of public discussion,” Stanton Gregor said. “Three readings of any ordinance takes six weeks and that encourages more public input. And I feel comfortable if we do have any catastrophic budget scenarios that we can, six weeks will be enough time to handle Parks and Rec stuff.”
Norheim’s request was voted down by a 6-1 vote with a full
assembly at the meeting.