Lawmakers look at library funds

ATLANTA - The funding of public libraries in Georgia needs additional oversight and perhaps an overhaul of the formula governing state support of library systems, members of a House study committee agreed Thursday.

"Libraries are basically a mishmash of federal, state and local dollars,'' said Rep. Chuck Sims, R-Douglas, the committees chairman. "With the amount of money that's spent on libraries ... we're just trying to make sure all the systems are on the same sheet of music.''

The study committee was one of dozens created by the General Assembly during this year's session but Thursday marked the first time any of those panels has met.

Part of the impetus behind the legislation forming the committee was last fall's conviction in federal court of David Wilson, former director of the Eastman-based Ocmulgee Regional Library System, on five charges of theft and one count of grand jury witness tampering.

A jury found that Wilson set up a secret account at a library branch in Cochran and stole $34,000 from it during a seven-year period.

But the committee also will be examining both the level of financial support for Georgia's 58 public library systems and the formula that determines how more than 300 state-funded library positions are distributed across the state.

The 2007 state budget, which takes effect next month, includes about $35 million for libraries. The level of state support had fallen to $32 million during the budget cutting of the last several years, said Lamar Veatch, the state librarian.

He said $2 million of the new money is earmarked for books and other materials.

Veatch said eight building projects are also in the pipeline, including the new Hamilton Mill branch in Gwinnett County.

But on average, library systems receive 82 percent of their money from local sources, including cities, counties and local school boards.

When it comes to average local spending per capita on public libraries, Georgia ranks only 42nd among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., at $16.02, Susan Roberts, an assistant to Veatch, told the committee.

Another Veatch assistant, David Singleton, built a case for more support for libraries by describing the increased role they play in today's society.

He said libraries have branched out well beyond books to become an electronic research headquarters.

All 372 public libraries in the state have high-speed Internet access, Singleton said.

He said more than 12 million people went online at Georgia libraries last year, up from 8 million three years ago.

"For many people, the public library is their link to the Internet,'' he said.

But before kicking in more money for libraries, committee members appeared interested in changing how the money libraries already receive is distributed.

With every county and every library system assured at least one state-funded library position, not many are left to be distributed to systems according to population. Thus, the smaller counties and systems tend to get more state-funded employees per capita than the larger systems.

Sims said the committee may suggest changes in the distribution formula.

The panel has until the end of this year to make its recommendations.