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Library board votes to close 4 branches, discloses other challenges

The Charlotte Mecklenburg library board voted to close four branches to deal with county budget cuts in July. But the library system's financial challenges are worse than previously revealed. It could owe $3 million in unemployment costs. Carmel, Belmont, and the Check It Outlet in uptown Charlotte will close on June 19. Library Director Charles Brown says those three branches are located relatively close to other libraries. The Beatties Ford Road branch will close temporarily as it undergoes renovations. The library board made the decision anticipating massive county budget cuts. County Manager Harry Jones has recommended reducing the library's budget by $15 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That's a 45 percent cut. In March, Jones asked library officials to prepare to lose up to half their budget. The library board decided to close 16 community branches and layoff 200 employees, if that were the case for next year. But they left an important factor out of that calculation. The library system would have to pay up to $3 million in unemployment benefits. Library Director Charles Brown says he waited to release that information until the county manager made his recommendation this week. "Some of this is fairly recent data, but also we didn't want to be accused of being alarmist," says Brown. "Now that we know what the actual budget recommendation is from the county manager we feel it's an appropriate time to share the information." Library officials were accused of being alarmist after they voted in March to temporarily close 12 branches when the county made $2 million in immediate cuts. After much public outcry, the library board reversed its decision and cut hours at all branches instead. A county general manager at yesterday's board meeting said he wasn't aware the unemployment expenses weren't included in next year's budget plan that the library presented to the county. County Manager Harry Jones has said one reason he did not recommend giving more money to the libraries is because Brown and other officials weren't forthcoming with information. The $3 million wouldn't be due until fiscal year 2012. Brown says laying off 200 employees would cost the library altogether $4 million including sick and vacation payouts. Library board member Robin Branstrom says she hopes county commissioners will see that as a reason to not cut so deeply. "I think the business case in my mind is it would make a lot more sense to put that money into keeping the libraries open than putting that money into closing them down," says Branstrom. Library board members plan to make that case to county commissioners before they vote on a county budget June 15.