A man sits in sunlight streaming through a window overlooking the Union River in the Ellsworth Public Library on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. Credit: Bill Trotter

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The local library likely will have to reduce its staff or its operating hours — or perhaps both — after the city council decided last week to cut Ellsworth’s annual support by more than 22 percent.

The Ellsworth City Council on Thursday decided to cut the city’s direct share of the library’s annual budget from nearly $600,000 to approximately $460,000, a move that the library director says will result in cutbacks in services.

The steep reduction comes at a time when many Maine cities and towns face severe revenue shortfalls because of the global COVID-19 pandemic and yet have to adopt annual operating budgets for the coming fiscal year, which for many begins on July 1.

At a budget workshop held on Thursday, the Ellsworth City Council considered a proposal from the library’s trustees to reduce the city’s share of the library’s annual operating budget by $34,161.

But the council decided instead to further reduce the city’s direct share of the annual budget by another $100,000 for a total reduction of $134,161, according to Amy Wisehart, the library’s director.

With this reduction, Ellsworth will contribute $461,872 to the library’s proposed $672,372 budget for the coming fiscal year, creating a $210,500 shortfall that the library will be unable to cover from other sources, Wisehart said. Typically, the library has to raise roughly $100,000 on its own each year — apart from what the city directly contributes in tax revenue — in order to meet its budget needs.

“We are pretty bare-bones as it is,” Wisehart said Saturday. “The only thing left to cut is staffing and hours.”

Wisehart said library officials understand the city needs to reduce its spending and she agrees that the library should do more to raise funds from residents of surrounding communities — which it has been planning to do this summer by setting for the first time an annual fee for patrons who aren’t Ellsworth residents.

But she questioned why the library has to bear the brunt of the city’s cost reductions.

“As far as I know, [the city council has] not made reductions to any other city department at anywhere near that level,” Widehart said. “We are less than 3 percent of the overall city budget.”

Dale Hamilton, chairman of the City Council, said Saturday that the issue is one of fairness to city taxpayers. Half of the library’s patrons come from surrounding towns, he said, but the voluntary annual contributions those towns make to the library amount to around $40,000 — less than 10 percent of what the city contributes each year.

“They should be willing to pay their fair share,” Hamilton said. “It is a regional asset.”

Because of the economic hardship from the pandemic, city officials have a goal of not increasing property taxes for the 2020-2021 year, Hamilton said. For some city departments, that means reductions in some line items in order to balance out increases required by union contracts, he said.

The council is not expected to take a final vote on the city’s overall 2020-2021 budget until sometime next month.

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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....