Municipal officials in Blue Hill have decided to reduce the town's annual funding for the library by half, or more than $42,000, which will represent roughly an 8 percent budget cut for the library, which also serves residents in Penobscot, Sedgwick and Surry. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

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The Blue Hill Public Library could see the funding it receives from local taxpayers cut in half this year, making it the second Hancock County library to face a significant reduction in funding because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ellsworth, the city-owned library is having its annual municipal subsidy slashed by almost a quarter, from nearly $600,000 to approximately $460,000 — a move that the library director has said will result in cutbacks in services.

While the libraries in Ellsworth and Blue Hill stand out so far in facing significant budget cuts, the reductions could be a harbinger of library budget cuts to come as towns and cities grapple with the effects of the coronavirus-related economic shutdown.

Many libraries already have decreased spending this year by closing down for part of the pandemic and anticipate that their budgets will shrink because of the steep economic downturn, said Jennifer Alvino, director of the Windham Public Library and president of the Maine Library Association.

“I think there will be more libraries that experience budget cuts like this,” she said.

Municipal officials in Blue Hill have decided to reduce the town’s contribution to the library budget from $85,300 last year to $42,650 for the current year, said Rich Boulet, director of the Blue Hill library.

Blue Hill residents will vote on the funding reduction when they cast ballots on the proposed municipal budget on July 14.

“Libraries everywhere strive to serve as a ‘port in a storm’ in tough circumstances,” Boulet wrote recently in a letter to library patrons. “At a time when we anticipate families are going to rely on our services to access critical, free resources, job searching, and benefits applications, as well as educational and entertainment resources as they tighten their own belts, we will do everything we can to provide these vital services to the community.”

Boulet is “still optimistic 2021 will bring a restoration of that funding,” he said Monday.

The Blue Hill library also serves residents in the neighboring towns of Penobscot, Sedgwick and Surry, which together in recent years have provided the library with $12,500 in annual funding. Penobscot and Sedgwick are contributing the same amounts this year as they did in 2019, Boulet said, and Surry is on track to do the same, though Surry voters have yet to approve their town’s budget.

By “tightening our belt,” he said, the Blue Hill library should get through 2020 without having to cut services or staff. If funding from Blue Hill does not go back up next year, though, he expects the library would have no choice but to reduce services and/or staffing.

About half of the library’s $638,000 budget for 2020 comes from revenue from its endowment, Boulet said, while 34 percent comes from donations and fundraising. The cuts from Blue Hill’s municipal budget will affect the 16 percent of the library budget that comes from municipal subsidies.

Libraries in less densely populated parts of the state, which tend to serve residents in surrounding communities as well as their own, are more likely to see their budgets reduced as their primary supporting municipalities try to get neighboring towns to offer more financial support, Alvino said. That request of neighboring towns can be a tall order in the current economic climate, she said.

Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to reduce library funding across the board, from supporting municipalities, donors, and other sources, she said.

Libraries, which include some owned wholly by towns and others established as charitable 501(c)(3) organizations, frequently have different funding structures that receive varying degrees of fee revenue, income from interest on endowments, direct donations, and taxpayer subsidies, Alvino said. The Windham Public Library, for example, is funded entirely by local property taxes but it too is looking for ways to reduce spending, she said.

“We are currently in a hiring freeze,” she said. “Most libraries are reopening with reduced schedules anyway. We know fundraising is going to be challenging this year.”

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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....