VERNON—Voters chose numbers over letters at Monday night’s Town Meeting.
Despite the Vernon Public Library Board of Trustees’ pleas to leave the budget alone, enough townspeople agreed with the Selectboard’s claim that Vernon can’t afford the library it currently has.
Rejecting a petition from Library Director Kris Berberian, voters affirmed a library budget of $70,000 for fiscal year 2018. This represents a 38 percent reduction from fiscal 2017’s budget.
In December, after the Selectboard approved the $70,000 budget, Berberian successfully submitted a petition to restore the library’s funding.
As a result, the 2017 Town Meeting Warning showed two articles related to library funding: one seeking $70,000, issued by the Selectboard, and one for an additional $39,900, by petition. If both articles passed, the library could cover its employees’ salaries and operating expenses.
Berberian and the trustees hoped the 125 people who signed the petition would show up to Town Meeting and support the institution.
Although a number of residents spoke up in favor of maintaining the library’s budget, others, including a few Selectboard members, reminded townspeople of the tight squeeze on municipal and personal finances since Vermont Yankee closed.
Board members Steve Skibniowsky and Josh Unruh compared Vernon’s library with those in towns with a similar population. They referenced other towns’ smaller libraries, reliance on volunteers to staff them, and robust fundraising efforts.
Unruh noted the difference in the budget’s line items for salaries and programs, and said, “we have plenty of money to have part-timers” run the library, and “volunteers have to take care of the rest.”
Unruh spoke to the many voters who expressed support for the library, instructing them “to volunteer to keep it open” if “people love their library.”
Berberian told The Commons “nobody from the Selectboard” talked to her about the library’s needs or its budget before deciding to cut funding.
Library Board of Trustees member Bronna Zlochiver accused the Selectboard of trying to cut the staff’s salaries — a move shot down by the Vermont Supreme Court in the 2002 Hartford Board of Library Trustees v. Town of Hartford case.
The Court gave the library’s Board of Trustees the sole final say over librarians’ compensation — not town officials.
In their attempt to cut the library’s budget so severely, Zlochiver argued, the Selectboard was de facto trying to cut the librarians’ wages. But Town Attorney Lawrence Slason disputed Zlochiver’s claim, pointing to the lack of language mentioning salaries in the Selectboard’s Town Meeting article.
Planning Commission member Janet Rasmussen chided library staff and trustees for approving a 5 percent salary raise this past year, when the rest of the municipal staff received a 2.5 percent wage increase.
Rasmussen asked “how is this in the spirit of cut, not spend?”
A ’caviar lifestyle’?
Resident Gordon Christiansen suggested cutting the library’s budget even further, noting the town “has a caviar lifestyle on a tunafish wallet.” He tried amending the article to give the library “a zero budget, and replace the staff with all volunteers.” This amendment failed.
Library trustee Janis Pereira pointed out how much the library’s suggested budget of $109,935 would cost a taxpayer who owns a home assessed at $200,000: about $66 for the year, or $5.50 per month.
Pereira compared this with Brattleboro’s Brooks Memorial Library’s out-of-town yearly card fee of $62, plus $5 for each additional household member.
But trustees and advocates couldn’t convince their fellow Vernonites, and the library’s Board of Trustees has $70,000 to cover salaries and expenses from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018.
According to Berberian, this will lead to noticeable cuts in the library’s services and hours — and either Berberian or Assistant Library Director Jean Carr will likely lose their job.
Trustee Kathy Korb pointed out the training and expertise required to build and manage a library’s collection — something Berberian has and volunteers likely don’t.
“This isn’t your grandmother’s library, it’s too technology-based,” Berberian said. “You can’t run it on volunteers.”
“I feel bad for the town, I really do,” said Berberian.