Library Chief: Closing Uptown Branch Difficult Before DNC Arrives
The last year has been a tumultuous one for Mecklenburg County's libraries. Big budget cuts have led to layoffs and branch closings. The branches that did manage to stay open saw their hours reduced. A library task force is expected to make more recommendations next week. A new leader is helping guide the library system through these tough times. He's Vick Phillips, who helped guide Bank of America through mergers as the chief of staff to former CEO Hugh McColl. Phillips spoke to WFAE's Scott Graf. Scott: Mr. Phillips, good morning. Phillips: Good morning, how are you? Scott: I'm good, sir. Thank you very much for taking the time. Looking back at the changes that were implemented, have they worked? Phillips: I think so, although I think they mask something that really went on last year that I think is important. The initial thought of the trustees was that the regional libraries, which were the backbone of our system, should remain open in full access hours, which meant closing a whole lot of branch libraries. So, if you do simple math, we were going to leave regional libraries open 100 percent of the time, and cut other branches 100 percent of the time. And that is not what the community said they wanted, so the library directors went to work and worked with the staff and came up with basically cutting every location 50 percent of the time. And, by and large, I believe that people have accommodated their schedules to when we're open, but we still see folks, every time we're closed, coming to the door, looking through, checking the hours posted on the door, and trying to find when they can come back and access their library. Scott: There's currently a library task force that's been meeting the last several months. One idea that's been tossed out is to identify a tax base for a steadier stream of revenue for Mecklenburg County libraries. Would that be in addition to the county funding that libraries currently receive, or instead of it? Phillips: They have not finalized their recommendation. I think what they're looking at is a way to have the county's funding of the library be based on something that is predictable and sustainable, and some place that is a tax district, if you will, that has a tax for a library, but there are other ways to do that, and at the last meeting of the group that is doing that particular work, suggested that they had looked at the per capita investment in libraries of various cities that Charlotte competes with for economic development and other reasons. Whether it is a tax district - which I don't think would be something they would recommend right away, I think that there are a lot of complications to that that would require a great deal of study and everyone would have to be on board with that - or is there just a measure, a metric that the county could use to say what's the appropriate funding level and look at these other cities is something that can be surveyed over time and would be a good guide to the budgeting process. Scott: One idea that's been tossed around or at least mentioned as a possibility is the closing of the main branch in downtown Charlotte. How realistic is that at this point? Phillips: Well, I think it would be a very interesting challenge to close the main library in the year prior to the Democratic National Convention coming to visit a block away. I just don't think that's a realistic alternative. The issue, I think, that the task force has with the main branch is that it is a very large building and we are not fully using that space now, so no one has said that we don't want a library uptown. The question is, is that the right building, and could the pieces of the library's operation that are located there be just as effectively located somewhere else? And maybe that building could be used for something else, either for the county or some other purpose that would cause it to be more efficient. Scott: You worked as the chief of staff for Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. How, Mr. Phillips, does this challenge that you are now tackling compare with some of the big challenges that you saw in the corporate world? Phillips: Well, quite frankly, it's very similar. My view is that all of the mergers we went through and all of the economic challenges of varying market cycles, times when we had great loan loss potential from various sectors of the market turning bad on us, all of those meant that we had to do things that we didn't want to do, and we had to deal with budget cuts that we didn't want to deal with. We had to deal with timelines that seemed too short and demands that seemed unrealistic, and all sorts of populations, from regulators to citizens to customers to our own employees, thinking this isn't the right direction. And having said that, we still had to move through it. So, I think the challenge ahead of us is very much like things that I was able to participate in during my three decades at that bank. Scott: Mr. Phillips, we appreciate your time. Thank you very much. Mr. Phillips: It's a pleasure. Thank you.