Cuts shut down Eltopia library

The branch library serving Eltopia is closed, a victim of low use and budget priorities.

The Mid-Columbia Libraries board told a group at its meeting this week that it will stand by the decision to close the branch.

Board chairwoman Gloria Garcia told the Herald on Thursday that the closure was part of adopting the 2012 budget in October, and that the patrons of the Merrill's Corner Branch Library were sent a letter earlier this month.

She said the board believes the Eltopia-area residents will be well served with twice-monthly visits by the library district's bookmobile. The branch, which closed last Friday, had about 125 active users.

But a half-dozen library patrons told the board this week that they are upset they had no notice that the closure was being considered. They gave the board a petition with nearly 275 signatures from concerned citizens throughout district.

This week the board went into a closed-door executive session to discuss the issue. Executive Director Kyle Cox told the Herald the discussion was closed under the personnel exemption of the Open Public Meetings Act because they were discussing how the reopening of the branch would affect library staff throughout the district.

The board then reconvened in a public session to say the closure was final.

Cox told the Herald the part-time library employee at Merrill's Corner has been reassigned to the Keewaydin Branch Library in downtown Kennewick.

He said the district will use the $50,000 in direct savings for the new branch library opening next year in West Pasco.

Paul Flatau of Basin City told the Herald he is unhappy with the decision.

"A local library system with branches in rural communities is a wonderful thing. It is something we actually used. Taking it away is sad," he said. "The local branch was pretty pathetic, just one room, to be honest, but it was way better than nothing and it had a computer with public access."

The bookmobile is even smaller and has no computer for public access, he said. The Merrill's Corner branch was open 15 hours a week, while the bookmobile will provide two hours access every other week, he noted.

He said Sandra LePage, the library board member who represents the Eltopia area, tried at the meeting to explain the decision and apologized for not involving the public earlier.

Others at the meeting criticized the board for not telling the public sooner so library patrons could speak out about their concerns.

Flatau maintains that the Merrill's Corner branch was not the lowest-use branch, so he worried what might happen to the district's other rural branches.

The district's 10 branches are in Pasco, Basin City, Benton City, Connell, Kahlotus, Othello, Prosser, West Richland and two in Kennewick. Richland has its own library.

Cox said in a prepared statement that the library board heard and understood the feelings of the concerned citizens, but felt a "fiduciary (duty) to ensure tax dollars are spent for the benefit of the most residents within the entire library district."

w John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com