After a month of negotiations with CVS Corp. proved fruitless, it seemed closing down or at the very least relocating the Semmes Library was unavoidable as the deadline to renew a costly lease on the property neared.
However, Mobile County commissioners were greeted with good news just as they were preparing to terminate the contract earlier this week — the “corporate giant” was willing to consider a shorter, less expensive lease.
“We sent an offer a few days ago proposing $5,000 a month for a 60-month [five-year] lease, which is roughly half of what the current lease has been. We’ve just now heard from CVS, and they are agreeable to that,” Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “That’s actually very good news. It’s surprising, but it’s good.”
What’s more, County Attorney Jay Ross said he’d had a “verbal conversation” with property managers for CVS and it could be likely that “at some point in the not too distant future, they might be willing to look at a lower [sale] price” for the building.
Currently, the county pays around $11,916 per month to lease the building. As discussions about renewing the lease came to head over the last month, all three commissioners and even the library’s supporters have acknowledged the current terms are “unacceptable.”
Hudson, whose district includes Semmes, began sounding the alarm in February after finding out her colleagues had no intention of renewing the lease. With underfunded libraries in their own districts, commissioners Jerry Carl and Merceria Ludgood have been steadily opposed to renewing the lease as currently written, though they’ve been open to finding other solutions.
Addressing Semmes residents earlier this week, Hudson gave a quick recap of the efforts that have been made to keep one of the area’s most visited public libraries open and in its current location since CVS flatly rejected a proposal to donate the building to Semmes as a tax write-off.
“We had an appraisal done on the building that came back at $1.3 million,” she said. “However, CVS has indicated to us they are not willing to consider any purchase offer less than $2.2 million, which puts it out of our range.”
CVS’ offer, which Hudson characterized as “take it or leave it,” was twice the property’s fair market value. Additionally, the county has already paid the corporation more than $1.7 million to lease the building over the past decade.
In addition, the commission has routinely provided the Semmes branch $162,000 in annual operating expenses, which far exceeds what it contributes to all of its other libraries in Mobile County combined. Both the lease and the library’s annual funding were established during the tenure of Hudson’s predecessor, Stephen Nodine.
The commission unanimously approved the lease in 2007 with support from Ludgood, who has recently been critical of the lease and the disparity in the county’s library funding.
Speaking to Lagniappe recently, Nodine said he wouldn’t apologize for getting “a much needed asset” to a community he claims has “paid their fair share of taxes” with “little return.” He also said establishing the library was part of the investments the county made to prepare for the city of Semmes’ 2010 formation.
“It was part of all that we invested in the western area. It was schools and roads — all to get them ready to become a city,” Nodine said. “It was close to $15 [million] to $20 million so the city wouldn’t have to take that on, but with the understanding that, when you become a city, you’re going to have to absorb these things.”
While Semmes has taken on the upkeep and maintenance of a number properties within its corporate limits, the library — technically located outside of the city — isn’t one. Currently, Semmes contributes nothing to its operation, though that’s likely to change.
Addressing the commission this week, Mayor David Baker said the city of Semmes is well aware it will “have to do [its] part, as other cities do to support their libraries.” However, he also reminded commissioners the library serves an entire region of the county, not just Semmes.
“We have people with library cards from Mississippi who regularly transit up and down Highway 98, and it’s important to bring that to the forefront,” he said. “When you look at the beauty and location of this library and the staff — it’s a draw, it’s a regional draw, and it helps the county.”
Though the news of a temporary solution was welcomed by commissioners and Semmes residents alike, it has not yet been finalized. So far, the only action taken has been the termination of the existing lease approved on March 27.
While Hudson was initially critical of her colleagues for failing to notify her about their opposition to renewing the library’s lease until weeks before the deadline to do so, she’s dialed some of that rhetoric back in light of their combined efforts to address the problem.
Even with the lease issues potentially resolved, discussions over the past four weeks have highlighted a stark disparity in the operational funds provided by the county. According to Finance Director Dana Foster-Allen, the Semmes Library received $340,000 in the 2017 budget while the other seven libraries the county funds received just $167,948 combined.
Asked if that could change going forward, Hudson said it was possible but added she is hopeful the last four weeks have highlighted the Semmes Library’s benefit to the entire western region of Mobile County — something she hopes her colleagues will remember.
“This is a top priority, not only for my office but for my fellow commissioners as well. They understand the importance of this and they know this is a regional library,” Hudson said. “It has served a lot of people for a long time, and we’re proud of it.”