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Library board to address Dacula branch closure

DACULA - Gwinnett's library board of trustees will revisit a decision to close the three-year-old Dacula branch to open a new facility nearby.

After Tuesday's meeting, the branch was slated to close around the end of the year, so its books and staff could be transferred to a Hamilton Mill branch under construction. But board Chairwoman Phyllis Oxendine said she had heard from members of the public and other board members who wanted more information at the 6 p.m Sept. 22 meeting.

"We're having to make unhappy decisions now," she said, because of the downturn in the economy and a reduction in funding, which left no money for the staffing of a Hamilton Mill branch, a green building that is set to be complete this winter.

Gwinnett County Public Library Director Nancy Stanbery-Kellam said she faced community pressure to open the building, so she turned to the local service district for a solution.

With a service district that encompasses the Buford and Dacula branches, officials picked the Dacula one, even though the building is 20 years newer than Buford. The size of the Hamilton Mill and Dacula branches are nearly even, while the Buford one is half the size, so Stanbery-Kellam said the staffing levels would only fit if Dacula was closed.

But the news brought uproar to the small 100-year-old city, where people waited for years for a branch.

Before the branch opened, Betty Hale lobbied officials and delivered letters from teachers and schoolchildren.

Hale was disappointed, time and again, as her community was passed over for other locations, but celebrated three years ago, when the Gwinnett County Public Library opened its 13th branch in Dacula.

But Hale's heart was broken again this week, when library board members decided to shutter the Dacula branch to open a new building in nearby Hamilton Mill.

"Our community uses that library to the full extent," Hale said. "We are so saddened and so angry that they would consider (closing it). ... I can't begin to tell you how torn I am over this."

Stanbery-Kellam said she is upset about the closure as well.

"It kills us," she said, acknowledging that further budget cuts expected in January could force the closure of two other branches. "All of our branches are busy. No one presents itself as a weak link. ... We don't want to close any libraries."

Jeff Timler, who lives in the Hamilton Mill community, said he and his neighbors have been excited about the new branch since Duncan Creek Park opened. The library will be at the park's entrance.

But he said he didn't want to see another community hurt by his community's gain.

"My preference on it would be to leave them both open and reduce the hours," he said. "it's disappointing that they are losing (a branch). It doesn't seem fair for Dacula."

Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, who represents the area, called the decision political retribution for his support of Secretary of State Karen Handel in the 2010 governor's race. Oxendine, whose stepson Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine is also seeking the post, denied that politics played a role.

"I find that ludicrous and rather humorous," Oxendine said.

But Beaudreau said the decision wasn't fair and the fact that it took place in a specially called meeting without input from the public troubled him.

"It's a shame, and it's a sham," he said Wednesday after meeting with Stanbery-Kellam, the mayor and others. "(People) don't mind sacrificing. We all realize it's a time of sacrifice, but they want it to be fair. The public is not going to stand for this."

Beaudreau called for the system to consider other revenue streams such as increasing fees for out-of-county residents. And he said other library branches are closer together than the seven-mile difference between Dacula and Hamilton Mill.

But Stanbery-Kellam said the issue was about the service district.

"None of these decisions are easy for any of us," she said. "We appreciate the passion that we have heard from these people, but if the funding is not there, something has to give."