Special Photo: Shelves in the children's section of the library sit bare. Degonia said it's impossible to find a book without the assistance of a librarian, but there is no longer a staff member dedicated to that area.
COVINGTON - The Newton County Library System continues to face deep cuts that are impacting services.
Staff at the library has been reduced by 57 percent since this time last year, according to Library Director Lace Keaton. Staff was reduced by 30 percent due to state budget cuts at the beginning of this year. Thanks to a hike in the cost to provide employee benefits, additional staff have left or had hours cut, she said.
Previously, a portion of an employee's salary went toward paying for health insurance, but the Georgia Department of Community Health decided earlier this year to charge a flat rate for anyone who has health insurance through the state. The cost is $745 per month per person, which equals out to $8,900 per year per person for health insurance. That cost will increase to $845 per month next year and $945 the following year, Keaton said.
"We simply could not absorb the cost," she said, adding that, "If they make $7.25 an hour, we still have to pay the $745 (per month). That's not including salary, taxes, retirement that goes along with it."
So part-time staff have had hours cut to under 17.5 a week, to get them below the threshold of health insurance eligibility.
The loss of benefits has resulted in several employees leaving the library or retiring, she said. The library system staff has dwindled from 41 to 21, with 12 full-time and nine part-time. Those are employees covering both the Covington and Porter Memorial branches and the Newborn service outlet.
Earlier this year, library staff was cut by 30 percent and remaining staff, both full- and part-time took salary reductions. Now, the state has reduced its allocation to the library by another 2 percent this fiscal year.
"We're still absolutely dedicated to providing services to everybody in Newton County," Keaton said, but added that there has been an impact to services.
Some local parents are concerned that impact is being felt too much in the children's section of the library.
Kim Degonia, who home schools her three children and uses the library once or twice a week, said there has been a significant change in that section over the last few months, with the children's librarian's desk removed and no one staff member dedicated to serving that area. Books are also not being restocked, leaving shelves empty, she said.
Degonia and her three children -- Denver, 5; Spencer, 9; and John Robert, 11 -- spent a recent afternoon counting the number of books in the sorting area waiting to be re-shelved.
"We stopped at 1,000," she said.
Degonia and about 30 others showed up at the library board of director's meeting Thursday morning to express their concerns.
"I know so many people rely on that library for their children and grandchildren ... I know they have enormous financial considerations and I know funding has been cut and cut and cut. The problem for our children and parents and grandparents is we can't wait 10 years for them to put that (librarian's) desk back," she said.
Keaton said there is still a children's librarian and staff dedicated to hosting children's activities, such as the Summer Reading Program. But they are also having to devote their time to other activities.
"There have not been cuts directed at the children's library. We still had summer reading and we have other programs; we have had to decrease the number of programs, not the quality, just the quantity," she said. "In the summer it's always hard to keep up with the volume of books that come in at the end of the summer reading program, but with a reduced staff, it's more apparent. There are not as many people to shelve as fast as we did last year."
But Degonia said there's been no sight of the regular children's librarian in many weeks. Instead, a sign directs patrons to the main desk, which is backed up with long lines.
Degonia is asking concerned citizens to attend the Board of Commissioners meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Newton County Historic Courthouse at 1124 Clark St.
"I feel forced to move a little further. I didn't get a satisfactory response today from the library board," she said. "I believe the board cares deeply about the library. They are volunteers, doing that for free. But they were unable to indicate at all whether they will have a children's librarian present. I would like the Board of Commissioners to be aware of the situation here ... We're just trying to try to save what we have. I'm not asking for improvements or new books, just put back what we had."
The library does have funds to hire two positions left vacant by departing employees, Keaton said, and volunteers are working diligently to get shelves restocked. Anyone who wants to volunteer to help the library can get more information by calling 770-787-3231.
"We have wonderful volunteers, a wonderful Friends of the Library (non-profit) and a really great library board. We will continue to provide the best service that we can," Keaton said.