“Library Now Open,” reads an all-caps sign outside the Woodbine Public Library: “Hello Summer.” 

The sign stands next to a trio of large potted plants, donated by a trustee and decorated with the handprints of children who participated in an art event.

Together they represent the library itself: full of personality and created via the sheer force of a community’s dedication.

The Camden County Board of Commissioners’ recent decision to reduce the Woodbine Public Library’s budget to $0 threatens all of that. For fiscal year 2023, the library had requested $30,000 out of the county’s $80 million budget.

While the library will be able to survive off of its savings for at least another year, it’s a serious step back for the 2-year-old institution, and could have even broader financial implications for its regional library network, which is required by the state to secure annual local support. And for the 600 families who currently have Woodbine library cards, a shutdown would mean a 14-mile-plus drive to reach free books, WiFi, social support, and more — a trip that low-income parents might not have the time or money for.

A library for Woodbine

Until 2020, Woodbine was the only one of Georgia’s 159 county seats without a library. 

Its existence is due to a five-year effort by the Woodbine Women’s Club. Members felt that their town, as well as Waverly and White Oak to its north, were located too far from both the Camden County Public Library in Kingsland and the city-run St. Mary’s Library to make them easily available to residents. That left Woodbine, which has a poverty level nearly triple the county average, without any strong community resource.

In 2017, the City of Woodbine donated an old fire station to house the library. In 2019, the library received grants from the Georgia State Legislature and Camden County Board of Education. In September 2020, the Woodbine Public Library (WPL) officially opened as a service branch of the broader Three Rivers Regional Library System (TRRLS), which spans six counties. 

Since then, the library has provided a number of services to the northern end of the county: books, 24-hour free wifi, activities for children and senior citizens, and computer literacy programs. The library also provides access to a number of state and national digital resource systems, including the University of Georgia’s GALILEO and free practice standardized tests. 

According to Library Assistant Taylor Sly, the WPL’s game nights and weekly Dungeons and Dragons meetings have provided an inclusive, safe environment for the county’s children. 

Sly thinks the library is important for local children who “can get into trouble” otherwise. “I fear that if this library closes, there’s going to be a lot of families that suffer because of it,” says Sly. 

The branch supports a wide array of residents, including a U.S. Navy service member who used the computer center to print out paperwork for court, according to TRRLS Regional Library Director Clinton Moxley. “Where else could he go and get that printed out here in Woodbine?” he asks. 

A desktop at the library shows the distance between Woodbine and Kingsland, where the next closest library is. Credit: Sonia Chajet Wides / The Current

Currently, the library has two part-time employees, and is open only 19 hours a week. Staff also say people sit at an outdoor table or in their cars to access the library’s broadband when the branch is closed. Increasing work hours to 20 per week, however, would make the employees full-time, a classification that activates health and retirement benefit eligibility. 

Moxley says that trustees had already talked about extending hours and hiring another staff member if they received continued funding.

“We were hoping to do more with the library, not less,” says Colleen Weinkle, a library trustee and the wife of a well-known critic of the Camden commissioners, Steve Weinkle. 

On June 16, the county commissioners put a wrench into those plans.

Budget showdown

On that early summer evening, several rows of concerned citizens, including Moxley, filed into the Camden County Courthouse for a commissioners’ meeting to review the proposed fiscal year 2023 Camden County budget. Reporters from The Current also attended.

Three commissioners, each with an empty chair beside him, sat behind a dais at the front of the room; another commissioner joined via Zoom, his face hidden from the audience.

The draft financial plan offered increased funding to the Camden County Library in Kingsland, but no funding to the Woodbine branch. The Camden County FY2023 budget had an increase of $18 million as compared to the previous year. Moxley was one of the first to raise objections to the decision, describing the local branch as vital to the community.

“Woodbine Library has a fund balance of north of $82,000,” responded Commission Chair Gary Blount, “So I don’t see that there’s a detriment to the Woodbine Library operations.”

In an interview with The Current, Moxley and Weinkle questioned that logic. They say the health of Woodbine’s branch balance sheet is because of Covid closures and staffing shortages. Besides, they say, their savings were roughly comparable to those of other branches in the system — including Camden County Library, which received its budget request for 2023.

The library was not the only controversial item in the budget meeting. Representatives from the Georgia NAACP and the Thiokol Memorial Project objected to how the commission allocated grant money from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARPA). 

Among citizens’ complaints: criticism that the commissioners ignored the intended use of the federal funds  — relief for those most impacted by the pandemic — in favor of requests from government offices. The county allotted more than 1 million dollars in ARPA funds for 31 new Sheriff’s Department vehicles. The budget also provides $30,000 of the ARPA funding for a new coroner van. 

Commissioner Blount declined to answer these criticisms.

Plants outside of the library are housed in community-decorated pots. Credit: Sonia Chajet Wides / The Current

System-wide impacts

The $30,000 loss in funding for Woodbine’s library could potentially have a wide-ranging impact for the TRRLS regional library system.

State policy on library funding says that local governmental annual operating support for each library system shall be equal to or greater than that of the previous fiscal year, or the libraries in the system will lose their eligibility for state and federal assistance ($913,734 worth across the TRRLS), plus their state and federal funding for technology grants, local partnership programs, and cataloging and database services. 

If the Woodbine library can’t secure equal or greater funding than the previous year, other TRRLS libraries’ funding will need to make up the difference, or the whole system will lose resources, according to state law.

Next steps in Woodbine 

Following the county budget vote on June 23, Moxley, the library system’s director, has worked to meet with the commissioners about amending the budget. “I do feel that the door is still open there,” he says.

Another cause for optimism are the 2022 elections, which will see a shakeup of the county commission. Commission chairman Blount lost his bid for re-election to challenger Jim Goodman. District 2 Commissioner Clark is stepping down.

5-year-old Athena Sly, daughter of library assistant Taylor Sly, stands with the library’s sign. Credit: Sonia Chajet Wides / The Current

In the meantime, Moxley is searching for a longer-term solution via two other local entities that receive taxpayer money — the Camden County Board of Education and the City of Woodbine. He hopes they could fill some of his funding gap. 

The library’s board of trustees is meeting on July 7th at 5pm at the Woodbine Public Library to discuss future plans. The event is open to the public. 

Should the library shut down, Moxley says residents and voters would only have one entity to blame. “If [the WPL] does close, this is something I do want the public here to know: it’s not Woodbine that’s closing the library. It’s not Three Rivers that’s closing the library,” says Moxley. “It’s that the county has cut the funding and the county is closing the library.”