While the fate of the Seneca Library branch is unknown, a group of Seneca residents are doing what they can to save their hometown library.

While the fate of the Seneca Library branch is unknown, a group of Seneca residents are doing what they can to save their hometown library.

The Save the Seneca Library Committee, organized in October with the goal of finding a way to keep the branch afloat, presented their questions and findings to the Neosho-Newton County Library board Tuesday afternoon, in what was, at times, an emotionally charged discussion.

Josh Dodson, Seneca Chamber president and committee member, pleaded with board members to dig deeper into the proposed 2013 budget to find a way to keep the doors to the Seneca library open.

"I would ask and plead for you to dig deep into this budget and look to see for yourself what you can do," Dodson said.
The Neosho-Newton County Library Board, a nine-member board made up of four City of Neosho-appointed representatives and five county-appointed representatives, voted in September to close down the Seneca branch, citing financial constraints as the cause for the impending closure.

However, in their October board meeting, several Seneca residents asked for a chance to save their library.

The board granted a six-month reprieve in the 2013 budget, and postponed the final vote on the closure until June.
At that time, the nine-member Save the Seneca Branch Committee was formed, consisting of Dodson, three board members, and representatives from the Seneca community and from around Newton County.

However, Dodson noted on Tuesday that only one board member, Suzanne Brown Hatfield of Seneca, has been attending the committee's monthly meetings.

The other board members serving on the committee are Kevin Hatfield, vice president, and Ginny Ray, the Neosho-Newton County Library Director, who serves on the board as an ex-officio member.

Tuesday's presentation got off to a rocky start, when board secretary Phyllis Blackwood asked that Dodson keep his committee report under five minutes, as is commonly required of visitors at public meetings.

However, Dodson noted that he was making a presentation on the committee's behalf, a committee formed by that board, and was granted more time.

"I just don't want to sit through 25 minutes or 45 minutes, or whatever it was last time," Blackwood said.
Dodson said it was important to note that the Seneca Library Branch became a member of the Newton County Library system in 1955, 11 years before the Neosho branch joined the county library system.

"We would also like to know what happened to the significance of the Seneca branch?" Dodson asked. "The Neosho branch has seemed to take precedence over the Seneca branch, in which, really, Seneca would be the oldest branch of the Newton County Library system. We must remind the entire county's citizens that Seneca and Neosho are branches of the Newton County library system."

Dodson also posed a series of questions to the board, related to cost cutting possibilities the Save the Seneca Branch Committee had found in the library's budget.

Those questions included why the library recently spent funds on window tinting at the Seneca Library Branch, even though the future of that branch is in question, why the board added e-readers to the library last year while dealing with financial issues, and why the library spends $150 per month on landscaping.

Ray said the window tinting was in response to years of complaints about a glare through the window, and that the amount was not significant enough to "make or break" the library decision.

She also noted that the funding for the e-readers had been donated, for the initial year, though the library was required to sign a three-year contract. That will result in a $6,000 annual fee for the library for at least the remaining two years of the contract, she said.

As for landscaping issues, Dodson suggested that a staff member be asked to contribute to landscaping or that a board member donate their time to help save the cost of the service, a suggestion that was met with laughter from some staff and board members.

"You don't pay someone to work the library desk and then tell them go mow the lawn," Blackwood said.

"The point the committee is trying to make is, once again, we're just trying to find ways to cut," Dodson said.

Ray noted that she has performed maintenance around the library before, while board member Beth Styron, of Granby, worried that staff members are already being asked to maximize their hours, and simply would not have time.

"We're in a downward spiral here, this is not productive," Styron said of the discussion. "We asked you to help us figure out how to fund the Seneca branch."

"OK, well, there's $150 a month," Dodson said.

Ray said that the library board has been making cuts at both locations for years.

She noted that the financial issues are not unique to the Neosho-Newton County Library, and that small libraries across the country are experiencing similar troubles.

Dodson also requested that the committee be provided with a line-item budget for the last four years, and that the Seneca branch manager, Mitzi Thurman, be allowed her own operating budget.

The cost of operating the branch has been reported as approximately $76,000 annually.

Blackwood said a single operating budget for Seneca would be difficult, as ordering of items is done centrally at the Neosho location.

Dodson also asked that any funds donated with the purpose of aiding the Seneca branch be earmarked for only the Seneca branch.

"If you guys are out fundraising to save the Seneca branch, it only makes sense to set that money aside for you," said board president Keri Collinsworth.

Blackwood and Ray suggested that a separate fund be created, similar to the way the Friends of the Neosho-Newton County Library operates, and be established as a 501c3.

"If there is money raised, is there any guarantee that the library in Seneca will remain open permanently?" Brown asked.
"There just can't be," Blackwood said.

Styron also noted that a single donation would not be enough to save the branch, as the costs of operating will be an ongoing issue each year, especially as the costs of operating increase.

Mary Largent, a member of the committee and former longtime librarian at Crowder College's Lee Library, asked why, of the four proposed 2013 budgets, even those without the Seneca branch have the same bottom line.

"Four different options and on those options your line number didn't change all you did was take the operational money from Seneca and you moved it to line numbers in Neosho, your bottom line didn't change," Largent said. "If you're really cutting back in Neosho in order for Seneca to survive, as another branch, then there should be a reduction in that line number for 2013."

Styron noted that the library would be working toward serving all communities in Newton County with the new budget.
"You cut services and what we were trying to do in that budget is to shift the funds that we were able to save by closing the Seneca branch into better serving the entire county in this one facility," Styron said. "Those of us from Granby and Loma Linda and Diamond, and Stark City, are driving to Neosho to use the library here because we don't have one in our city."

Dodson said the committee's next step is to develop a concrete plan of how to collect donations and present that to the library board in their February meeting.

The Neosho-Newton County Library's financial woes were expressed publicly before the September announcement of the Seneca branch closure.

In June, the library pursued a 14.5-cent increase to the Newton County library's property tax levy, which was intended to add an additional 17,000 square feet to the Neosho location, as well as to fund repairs to the Neosho branch.

However, that issue failed, by a wide margin, with only 36 percent of voters casting their ballots in support of the issue.
At the time of the election, Ray cited several problems facing the Neosho library, including a leaky roof, inadequate space, and a broken sewer line.

The issue lost in nearly every precinct, including Seneca, where voters rejected the levy by a nearly 6-1 margin.
Seneca is the only Newton County town, besides Neosho, with a Newton County Library System branch in their community.