Thanks to a deal pushed largely by former County Commissioner Stephen Nodine, the library in Semmes has enjoyed substantial county funding for years, but as officials approach the end of an expensive lease, the relatively young city has found itself being asked to pick up the tab.
At 9150 Moffett Road, the facility is just outside Semmes city limits, and despite being known as “the Semmes Library,” it’s technically a branch of the Mobile Public Library system. It’s also housed in a building owned by CVS that the county has leased since 2007, three years before Semmes was incorporated as a city.
While the community helped raise $380,000 to establish the library, the Mobile County Commission has absorbed the cost of maintaining that lease to the tune of $143,000 per year, which is far more than libraries in other unincorporated areas receive annually.
In addition, the lease requires the county to cover the cost of all maintenance and pay CVS’ ad valorem taxes and insurance on the property. So far, the commission has paid more than $1.7 million to lease the building, which has a fair market value of only $1.4 million.
With the lease set to expire in September, though, “there’s no support” on the commission to renew the lease as is. However, officials in Semmes do not appear willing or able to take on the expense, either — leaving the future of one the area’s most utilized public libraries up in the air.
“I’m not willing to go into another long-term lease where, basically, we are being taken to the cleaners. I understand that it’s a good library and they need the library, but the funding has got to come from somewhere else,” Commission President Merceria Ludgood said last week. “It’s just fundamentally unfair, and I’ve had at least two other jurisdictions ask me how they can get that kind of deal for their libraries, and of course, that’s just not available.”
Likewise, Commissioner Jerry Carl said there are two libraries in his own district that receive less funding, and he isn’t in favor of renewing the lease either. That has left Commissioner Connie Hudson, whose district includes Semmes, to push for a resolution on her own.
However, even Hudson has said renewing the lease isn’t in the county’s best interest, calling it a “very short-term agreement for the cost of the capital improvements that have been made.” Still, she’s continued to work with Semmes and CVS to see what, if anything, can be done.
“I would like to help this community, and I don’t want to see those doors shut … I think it would be a terrible, terrible disgrace for that to happen,” Hudson said. “We can’t just pull the rug out from under these people. We’ve got to at least help them transition somehow.”
Much to the chagrin of its supporters, though, the library doesn’t appear to be the highest priority for Semmes’ current administration. Lagniappe reached out to Mayor David R. Baker for comment on this story but did not receive a response by this publication’s deadline.
He has written all three commissioners, though, urging them “to renew the lease” and allow the library to continue operating “as before.” Baker called it “the right thing to do,” adding that as the only public library between Spring Hill and Citronelle, Semmes serves an estimated “21,579 Mobile County residents.”
“All of these residents have been paying taxes — both ad valorem and sales — to Mobile County the entire time the Semmes library has existed and will continue to do so,” he wrote. “[Semmes] doesn’t have the financial ability to assume this lease or provide substantial funding for this library, at present or in the foreseeable future, as there are other critical priorities in public safety and public works on which the city must focus.”
Baker said that with approval from the city council, Semmes might be able to provide “a small amount,” but was clear there would be no commitment to the library “on a recurring basis at this time.” He also said he’d expect “a great and justifiable public outcry” if the facility were to close.
Only two possible solutions have been publicly proposed so far, and both depend on the generosity of others.
The first is to ask CVS for a more palatable lease or to donate the building to the city for a potentially substantial tax write-off. The second, which was pitched by Carl, is for Hudson to use her own district educational and discretionary funding to keep the library afloat.
No matter how the county proceeds, the lease requires commissioners to give CVS notice of how they’ll proceed by April 1 — leaving just two meetings to find a solution. That “time crunch” also led to a discussion last week about whether commissioners can discuss their options out of the public’s eye.
Based on his interpretation of Alabama’s Open Meetings Act, Carl suggested he could discuss the matter with his colleagues in private, as long as they didn’t come to a conclusion. As he put it, “I can come to you with my thoughts on a project. You don’t tell me how you’re going to vote one way or another, and we walk way.”
However, Hudon and Ludgood seemed to share a different interpretation of the law.
“That’s a real gray area,” Hudson responded. “I’m sure people would be suspect [if] there wasn’t some conclusion that came out of a conversation like that. I prefer to err on the side of caution, so if I’m going to discuss something, it’s going to be in a public meeting.”
The commission’s next public meetings are scheduled for March 13 and 27 at Government Plaza in Mobile, where the status of the library is likely to be revisited. Hudson is hosting a related meeting at the Semmes Community Center on March 7 at 6:30 p.m.