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Library services for Sharon residents at issue

SHARON — A 7-year-old girl who wanted to get her first library card went away disappointed last Thursday, after her request was turned down at the Peterborough Town Library.

Kate Craig of Sharon was checking out books with her mother, Tracy Tanner Craig, using Tracy’s library card, when Kate had a question.

“I asked my mom if I could get my own card,” Kate said on Wednesday. “My brother, Jack, has one. Then they said that residents from Sharon can’t get cards now for the kids. They gave us a sheet telling us why.”

Tanner Craig said the letter they were handed had been sent to the Peterborough library by Chet Bowles, Sharon’s town administrator, earlier this month. In the letter, Bowles wrote, “Beginning in 2014, Sharon residents will be responsible for paying for their own card at the library of their choice. Residents will then have the opportunity to be reimbursed by the town for some portion of the expense of the library membership. Although the details of the reimbursement process have not been finalized, we will notify Sharon residents of the change prior to January 1, 2014.”

Tanner Craig was surprised, because she was unaware that a change was in the works.

“Last March, we voted to allocate money for Peterborough. It seemed citizens were fine with paying for Peterborough,” she said on Tuesday afternoon.

Tanner Craig, who is the town’s welfare officer, said a number of Sharon families depend on the Peterborough library for essential Internet services and paying a $68 fee up front could be a problem for some residents.

Bowles’s letter to the library came out of the Select Board’s effort to save money in 2014 by changing the way the town provides residents with library cards, one of several town services provided by Sharon’s much larger neighbor, the town of Peterborough.

At Town Meeting in March, voters approved a warrant article for $7,000 to pay membership fees at the Peterborough Town Library. The town has been paying Peterborough based on the number of library cards that Sharon residents hold in a given year. At Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, board members signed a check for $6,868 to the town of Peterborough for 2013 library services.

At the March T0wn Meeting, voters also discussed options they might consider in future years, including the idea of not paying for library services at all. And that discussion prompted the Select Board to recommend a change for 2014.

They’re suggesting that residents who want a library card could pay the nonresident charge at the library of their choice, as long as it’s a “brick and mortar” institution. The town would then reimburse the resident for the cost of the card. Only one card per household would be eligible for reimbursement, although the board said a Peterborough card could be used by any member of the family.

Board members say their plan would make it much less likely that someone would get a Peterborough library card and keep it for years without using it, while the town continues to pay. It would also offer Sharon residents lower cost options. Peterborough’s annual fee for a non-resident card is $68. Jaffrey charges $30 and Keene charges $50. Franklin Pierce University does not charge for a card.

“We’re trying to weed out unused cards,” Select Board Chair Marc LaPlante said at Tuesday’s meeting. “If only 50 or 60 are being used, there can be considerable savings on the bill.”

“This is the fairest way I’ve seen to do this,” said Select Board member Carl Newton.

But some residents said the proposed system isn’t fair at all.

While Tanner Craig was unable to attend Tuesday’s board meeting due to weather conditions, she had asked resident Ted O’Brien to speak on her behalf. After describing how Kate Craig had been denied the chance to get her own card, O’Brien said the Select Board’s plan was in conflict with the way residents voted in March.

“Why, after we voted at Town Meeting, did you unilaterally change it?” O’Brien asked. “I hope you would rethink this and put it before Town Meeting.”

Bowles said the warrant article approved in March was for the 2013 calendar year and the town was paying Peterborough this week based on that Town Meeting vote. But he added that there had been considerable discussion at Town Meeting about alternative plans and the proposal could save money while giving residents more choices.

Board member Linda Paris said she was confident that if Tanner Craig, as welfare officer, recommended that the board not require upfront payment from a person in need, that recommendation would be approved.

Resident Mark Carpenter asked if the Peterborough library could bill the town at the end of the year for the number of cards it issues or renews during any given year. That arrangement, he said, would eliminate the issues regarding prepayment followed by reimbursement.

Bowles initially said Peterborough had rejected that option, although later in the meeting he said library officials had been unwilling to do this in the past, but had not been specifically asked about it this year.

Carpenter urged the board to ask again, and LaPlante and Newton said they would.

Mark Fernald said the board should have informed residents directly about their plan, rather than having them hear about it through renewal letters that the library has been sending that include a copy of Bowles’ letter.

On Wednesday, Bowles said a second letter about the change, which he had drafted to go to Sharon residents prior to the end of the year, will not go out until town officials have a chance to follow up with Peterborough on Carpenter’s suggestion. In the draft letter, Bowles wrote that the plan to reimburse residents for cards at the library of their choice “was discussed extensively at Town Meeting in March 2013. It seemed that most people understood the issues and felt the proposed solution was a workable compromise.”

Bowles said because Sharon is so small, the issue of how to provide services is up for discussion almost every year. In addition to the library, the town contracts with Peterborough for police coverage, fire protection, ambulance service and recycling. For police and recycling service, Peterborough charges on a per-capita basis. Fire protection is based on the assessed value of property in the town. Ambulance service is on a fee-for-service basis, the same arrangement Peterborough uses with other neighboring towns.

“The issue for us is how to provide services in the most cost-effective way possible,” Bowles said. “Fortunately, Peterborough is willing to help us out.”

On Wednesday, Marcia Patten, chair of the Peterborough library’s Board of Trustees, said the board will be meeting this week to discuss the arrangement with Sharon. She said the library should not have sent out renewal notices to Sharon residents.

“The letters that went out to each individual cardholder were in error,” Patten said. “We want to talk to Sharon officials about this matter.”

Patten said the Sharon proposal would have an impact on the library’s budget.

“We’re estimating we’d see about $3,800 in decreased revenue,” she said.

Patten also said she was hoping to contact the Craig family.

“I don’t understand why that happened,” she said in reference to Kate’s request for a card being denied. “We’ve been working under the agreement we have had all year. If a person [from Sharon] comes in, they should get a card.”

Later Wednesday afternoon, Tanner Craig said Patten had called her and they’d had a very satisfactory discussion. She said she appreciates the effort that the Peterborough library is making to clarify the situation and she’s hoping everyone involved in the process will remember what it’s like to be a child.

“There’s something about carrying your own card that’s being lost in all this discussion,” she said.

And Kate said she was disappointed that snow had prevented her from going with her mother to the Select Board meeting.

“I wanted to tell them that I think all the kids of Sharon should get library cards,” she said. “I felt bad, because Jack has one and I don’t.”

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or danderson@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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