By Laina Stebbins
Bath-DeWitt Connection Reporter
DEWITT — Keeping the DeWitt District Library afloat has long been a topic of debate for the DeWitt Charter Board of Trustees, the DeWitt District Library Board, and several more township boards involved. For far too long, many argued, the library was forced to run on an insufficient allotment of 0.5 mill.
The township’s shrinking budget further aggravated this problem; because of increased cuts in funding by the state, DeWitt Township had little to work with as it was.
A proposed millage increase in this situation, along with a proposal for a new library building large enough to sufficiently serve the needs of its community, would likely prove challenging to gain public support for.
This was indeed the case.
In 2013, the DDL asked the DeWitt community whether they would support a millage increase to 2.5 mills and the construction of a new library building on DeWitt Road that would be roughly four times the size of the current one. The community consensus on the proposal was a profound “no.”
“It was primarily the increased cost” that caused the majority of residents to oppose the millage request, said DeWitt District Library Director Jennifer Balcom.
According to Balcom, the combination of the need for a larger library building and the lack of operational funds for the current library made the situation much more dire.
“Part of the challenge for us was that not only did we want to have the new building, but we did not operationally have enough funds for where we currently were,” said Balcom.
In March 2014, ahead of the library’s millage expiration date of August, the DeWitt District Library planned to renew the millage and mailed out surveys to residents in the district to get community input for the ballot’s content. After the community’s resounding opposition the year before, the library board wanted to know how supportive the community would be of library improvements this time around.
In that public survey, it was noted that the operational millage of 0.5 mills allocated at that time was “not enough to continue to operate the library at its most basic level.” Losses in state aid and tax revenue were named as the causes. For evidence of dysfunction, it points to cuts in staff, a reduction in operation hours by 27 percent, and a reduction in its books and materials budget over the previous five years by more than 50 percent.
If this new millage proposal didn’t pass, the library would have had one more chance in November; if this failed as well, the library would have likely closed in 2015 for lack of operational funds.
“In August when we did pass for additional operational funds, it got us to a much better place,” said Balcom.
The future is looking bright for the DeWitt District Library, but there’s much more work to be done.
“I’d like to see the library be more relevant to the community,” said Balcom. “I’d like the community to see the library … as a way to connect them with their community.”
Balcom adds that the functions of public libraries are shifting, and increasingly function more as community centers in addition to places to get information and resources. Similarly, she highlights the importance of residents voicing their needs and the library being able to follow through with solutions.
“We’re funded by them. We want to offer what they want us to offer,” said Balcom.