A man sits in sunlight streaming through a window overlooking the Union River in the Ellsworth Public Library on Wednesday. Credit: Bill Trotter

Starting next July, Ellsworth Public Library patrons who are not city residents may have to pay $25 for the right to check out materials from the downtown facility.

It all depends on whether those patrons’ towns are funding the library out of their municipal budgets, and it’s part of a larger change the library is making as it tries to become less dependent on Ellsworth tax dollars.

Currently, the city-owned library — which receives 85 percent of its operating funds from Ellsworth — does not charge anyone, regardless of where they live, for a library card, unless they want to pay $1 to have the card laminated. Over the past few years, the annual amount it receives from Ellsworth has ranged from roughly $550,000 to $610,000, while the money it receives from 18 nearby Hancock County towns has increased from about $35,000 to $40,000.

Credit: Bill Trotter

As of July 1, the library plans to start charging those nearby towns on a per-capita basis, said Amy Wisehart, the library’s director. The library’s board of trustees has approved a charge of $5 per resident of towns close to Ellsworth, $3 per resident of towns relatively far away and $4 per resident of those towns in between.

Towns can opt out of providing funding to the library from their budgets, in which case their residents will have to pay $25 for a library card. If they want to get a card after June 2021, it will cost $30.

“We’re really a regional library,” Wisehart said. “We’re trying to diversify our funding a little more.”

Towns outside Ellsworth that traditionally have provided varying degrees of direct funding to the library include Amherst, Aurora, Dedham, Eastbrook, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Great Pond, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Orland, Osborn, Otis, Sorrento, Sullivan, Surry, Trenton and Waltham. Library officials also have asked Hancock County for funding — since residents of the county’s Unorganized Territory use the library — but have been turned down, Wisehart said.

By changing its fee structure, Wisehart said, the library hopes to raise $50,000 from surrounding towns in the city’s next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2020. Library officials are not sure how much they might raise, but they hope they will receive more funding from the surrounding area.

“It’s hard to predict what the towns will do,” Wisehart said.

Credit: Bill Trotter

Earlier this year, while library trustees were developing a new fee structure, the library decided to stop charging late fees for overdue children’s and young adult materials. The fines generated about $3,000 a year for the library, Wisehart said, but the practice was viewed as a deterrent to checking out materials at all, particularly for low-income families.

The issue of how much money Ellsworth raises for its library, which is city-owned but run by its own board of trustees, drew voter attention in 2015 when the library asked residents to support a $4.95 million bond for a major renovation at the State Street building. The referendum failed by 290 votes.

Library trustees are not looking to raise money for another expansion proposal, Wisehart said. However, the library is planning an interior renovation to add floor space to the second floor, closing in space that is now open from the first floor all the way to the second-level ceiling. The project would create a larger children’s area, storage for the library’s historical collection and a small meeting room.

The library will rely entirely on grants and donations to pay for the project, expected to cost $400,000, Wisehart said. The timing will depend on how quickly fundraising goes.

As the library looks to become less dependent on tax dollars, it plans to pursue more fundraising, Wisehart said, but it harbors no ambitions of raising enough funds to support most of its operating budget. The library currently has a small endowment, from which it expects to draw around $35,000 this year.

The library will host a public forum on the proposed fee changes Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....