Things got heated on Thursday as residents of Semmes aired their grievances over the Mobile County Commission’s intent to terminate a lease that’s kept the Semmes Branch Library open for the past decade.
As Lagniappe reported last week, the library is technically a branch of the Mobile Public Library system but has been housed in a building owned by CVS the county has leased since 2007.
For the past decade, the Commission has absorbed the cost of maintaining that lease to the tune of $143,000 per year while also paying an annual operating cost at the library of $162,000 — far more than the county contributes to all of its other libraries combined.
That brings the county’s annual contribution to the Semmes library to roughly $336,245.
Add to that, the fact that Semmes is the only municipality that makes no financial contribution to its area library and it becomes clear why commissioners claim residents in other areas have felt a disparity.
Now, with the current lease set to expire in September, two of the three county commissioners have repeatedly stated they have no interest in renewing the contract under the same terms.
However, provisions requiring a six-month notice of termination and an automatic renewal clause have created a problem officials don’t have much time to solve. If the notice of termination isn’t given by March 31, the lease will renew for another 10 years.Earlier in the week, Commissioner Connie Hudson, who represents the city of Semmes, expressed dismay over how late her fellow commissioners waited to make their opposition to renewing the lease known — a sentiment Semmes residents seemed to share.
At Thursday’s conference meeting, Kim Leousis questioned whether Commissioners Mercia Ludgood and Jerry Carl’s choice to wait until the “11th hour” to voice their opposition was an intentional act of sabotage or perhaps the result of political infighting.
In particular, Carl was targeted for a comment he made during a Commission meeting last month claiming he’d “put a reminder in [his] phone in 2012” about the lease and had known then he had no interest in renewing it. On Thursday, Carl responded aggressively to the criticism — telling Leousis “it’s not my responsibility to keep up with every lease in the county.”“You want to blame me as being the bad guy here, but in reality, you’ve had 10 years to get ready for this lease to expire. What has the city of Semmes done? Well, nothing,” Carl said. “I’m trying my best to work with you. I’ve gotten all the rude emails and all the hateful phone calls, but if you want to blame somebody, you can blame your own commissioner. She’s the one that’s responsible for keeping up with that lease — Not District 3. Not Jerry Carl.”
Responding, Hudson told Carl she’d been fully aware the lease was set to expire but unaware of the opposition to renewing it until weeks before the deadline. She also deflected Carl’s criticisms of Semmes’ failure to prepare, reminding him the city didn’t exist when the agreement with CVS was signed in 2007.
“This is a county library. It serves all the western part of Mobile County,” she added. “We’re all in this together, and if the same thing happened in your district, I like to think we would all pull together and not be defensive and blaming each other.”
While there were some tense exchanges, all three commissioners eventually pledged to continue working to find a solution — though it’s clear that solution will not include a 10-year renewal of the lease as currently written.
The debate came up ahead of a vote to terminate the lease that was originally scheduled for the commission’s upcoming meeting on Monday, March 13.
Both Carl and Ludgood have previously said they’d like to give notice of the county’s intention to terminate as soon as possible in order “to push CVS to negotiate,” despite the fact County Attorney Jay Ross has been in conversations with CVS’ real estate division for some time.
While those conversations are ongoing, Ross said the company had flatly rejected the possibility of donating the building to Semmes as a tax write off. However, there’s still the possibility of renegotiating the terms of the lease or extending it on a short-term basis until a long-term solution can be reached.
Because those discussions have started, Ross said the timing of the vote to terminate the lease wouldn’t have much of an impact on the outcome. Still, to ease the concern of the library’s supporters, Carl proposed rescheduling the date of the vote to March 27.
At the end of Thursday’s discussion, Ludgood said her eagerness to push forward quickly was based on “preserving the one piece of leverage” the county had with CVS. She also rejected suggestions that the controversy surrounding the lease was exacerbated by “some kind of internal thing among” the commissioners related to funding in their respective districts.
“All of us care as much about Semmes as Commissioner Hudson does. The people who live there don’t vote for us, but we still represent them, and we wouldn’t do that to her as a colleague,” Ludgood said. “We also wouldn’t do that to the people in Semmes because we serve you just like we serve the people in District 1 and District 3.”