Bixby seeks more funding from towns as its endowment dwindles
VERGENNES — Facing a fiscal crisis that Bixby Free Memorial Library board members believe could bankrupt the Vergennes fixture in a few short years, those board members this winter approached the five communities the library serves seeking a major boost in the support it receives within town budgets.
Bixby board members said they understood why responses from local selectboards were mixed when the Bixby initially asked for an increase in support from $13.66 per resident to about $24.
“They’re still remembering when we were $7,” said board member Peter Morris of Ferrisburgh. “The selectboards, understandably, are trying not to raise their taxes.”
Bixby board chairman Brad Howe of Panton said the national economy, while improving, also remains fragile, further complicating town leaders’ positions.
“The whole climate we operate in … is not a particularly optimistic one,” Howe said.
Addison Selectman Rob Hunt, who successfully moved to retain the $13.66 contribution level, explained the dilemma from the town’s point of view. Addison has an up-or-down vote on its entire budget, with no ability to amend from the floor of the town meeting. If residents didn’t like the Bixby increase, the entire municipal budget proposed by the selectboard would be at risk, he said.
“We didn’t want to jeopardize the rest of the budget, because it isn’t separate,” Hunt said.
As it stands now, Addison is standing pat, and the Ferrisburgh selectboard agreed to an increase to $14.05 per head. Panton, said Bixby board members, agreed essentially to split the difference and bump up its contribution to $19, but that was before Addison and Ferrisburgh’s responses.
Howe is optimistic about support in Waltham, the only town where voters still directly make the decision in a charitable line item. Bixby officials also said City Manager Mel Hawley told them an increase might be acceptable to the Vergennes City Council, which creates the Vergennes budget in June.
Meanwhile, the towns’ support for the Bixby is on the low end of the Vermont spectrum. Bixby Director Jane Spencer (who is overseeing changes at the library; see story on Page 14) said the statewide per capita average for town support is more than $30. Bristol’s per capita support for the Lawrence Memorial Library is $31.78 this year, and Middlebury’s support for the Ilsley Library last year was $63.67.
Some rural towns are in the Bixby range: Last year Orwell and Starksboro gave about $13 each per capita to their libraries.
Others are more in line with the Bixby’s new request: including Lincoln ($25.96 in 2012), New Haven ($25.36 in 2013) and Shoreham ($25.29 in 2013).
In neighboring Chittenden County in 2012, Charlotte gave $34.13 per capita last year, and Hinesburg gave $36.87 last year.
What is certain is the need: The Bixby is now taking about $72,000 a year out of its endowment — which according to treasurer Donna Corcoran stood at $341,000 in November — to fund its annual operating budget of $232,000.
“That’s more than our endowment can earn,” Corcoran said, pointing to an average of about $15,000 of earnings in recent years.
An increase to a $24 per capita contribution from the five towns would increase the towns’ total donation by about $81,000 a year to around $184,000. According to Corcoran’s calculations, no further increase would be needed for five years, something Bixby officials had hoped would be attractive to town leaders.
“It would have given us time to stabilize the endowment,” she said.
Like other Bixby board members, Corcoran said she was sympathetic to selectboards’ concerns.
“It was such a big increase they could just not see their way to that, and I understand that,” she said.
But at the same time, board members see the Bixby’s financial back against the wall.
Morris said he would recommend the Bixby simply close its doors in May 2015, when there would still be some cash in the endowment. A separate bequest from the Clifford Austin estate is being used to maintain the building, but is not enough to solve the endowment crisis, board members said.
Board members could then seek an alternate model of operations, possibly by bringing in rental partners that could make the Bixby a community center, an approach Morris said had worked elsewhere.
“The handwriting is so on the wall,” Morris said. “At what point is it fiscally responsible to stop the bleeding?”
No board member really wants to run the library with lower standards than are in place now.
“We’re proud enough of what we’re doing … that we don’t want to provide extremely limited services,” Morris said.
But in the meantime, the board has regrouped and taken a slightly new approach to the towns. In the past, the board has been reluctant to request money at different rates from the five towns, but Howe said that position changed last week.
In a straw vote he conducted among board members, Howe said it was unanimous to approach the towns individually and see what each was willing to contribute. The target will be $18.94, a figure Bixby officials arrived at by taking the $24 per capita in Vergennes and subtracting the value of the services to the library provided by city employees, and by looking at what Panton was initially willing to support.
Howe said the approach also recognizes that the towns have different needs and different financial positions on a year-to-year basis.
“I think we understand now better that there’s a lot of diversity in how they do things,” he said.
Bixby board members will revisit the Panton selectboard and ask for a reaffirmation of their initial support, and approach Waltham and ask for that board’s support for a higher charitable request on Town Meeting Day, as well as a place on the town meeting agenda.
They also hope to meet again with the selectboard in Ferrisburgh. The board has adopted its budget, but that budget can be amended from the floor of town meeting.
Howe made it clear they want to work with the board and not simply show up at Ferrisburgh’s town meeting and ask for more cash.
“We’re going to get on the board’s roster … to speak at town meeting, and make an attempt to speak at town meeting, but we don’t want to alienate the board,” Howe said.
In Addison, Hunt’s motion at a selectboard meeting to level-fund the town’s contribution also included a provision to discuss at town meeting whether to take the Bixby back out of the budget and return it to a charitable contribution decided by voters directly.
Hunt said Addison selectboard members had mixed feelings about the Bixby’s request.
“If the townspeople are in favor of an increase, I don’t think the board is against it,” Hunt said.
Bixby board member Ed Place will speak on the Bixby’s behalf on the future of Addison’s funding of the library. Howe said the board does not have an official position on the issue, although he said there is more security in knowing there would be in-budget funding rather than risking voters rejecting a request.
Howe said the Bixby board also hopes to establish a council with representatives from each of the towns to help spread the word on the library’s need and to help the library read the tea leaves for the possibility of future support.
“There’s going to be negotiation involved, and there’s going to be a lot of education involved, and we’re going to have to be realistic,” he said.
The library’s director said the board is being realistic about the Bixby’s finances.
“You can’t keep taking money out of the endowment to have programs … Eventually you use up everything that is in the piggy bank,” Spencer said. “And then nothing’s left, and then what happens?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].