Flagler Beach on Thursday formally rejected an inquiry by Flagler County government about the possibility of merging the Flagler Beach Public Library with the county’s system. But that does not necessarily close the book on a collaborative partnership. City Commissioner Jane Mealy, the fiercest defender of the Flagler Beach library’s independence, is intrigued by the possibility of a cooperative that would preserve that independence but expand Flagler Beach residents’ access to county library resources, likely at no additional cost.
Holly Albanese, who heads the county library system and is director of special projects, says the county and the city could enter into an agreement that would result in a library cooperative that leaves the Flagler Beach library’s independence intact, but with benefits in additional resources and access to Flagler Beach residents that commissioners and their constituents may not be aware of–as indeed Mealy was not.
For example, while Flagler Beach residents have access to–and borrowing privileges from–the public libraries in Palm Coast and Bunnell, they may not have books or other materials from those libraries delivered for pick-up at the Flagler Beach library. Nor can they access the county’s electronic resources, databases and ebooks without a county library card. A cooperative would change all that, making that sort of access–and delivery system–seamless, thus vastly expanding the amount of library materials Flagler Beach residents could tap. “I would think that their residents would like that as an option, but it’s not my call,” Albanese said.
“I had no idea that kind of thing was possible,” Mealy said. Albanese suspects that most of the city commissioners are not aware of such possibilities.
“It’s still a municipal library within their boundaries and they would have a say as to what happens in it or what doesn’t happen in it,” Albanese said. “But the cooperative idea gives them more independence than being part of the county.”
Albanese points to Lake County as an example of a working cooperative. The county has 15 libraries–six of them run by the county, nine of them run by independent cities, all of them forming a cooperative where Lake County residents, wherever they live, have equal access and borrowing privileges, as well as delivery options to their closest library. (See one of the Lake County agreements with the City of Eustis for library services.)
It would have to be a two-way street. Right now, while Flagler Beach residents, who are also county residents, can have free library cards at the county’s libraries, Flagler Beach charges $25 a year to county or Palm Coast and Bunnell residents who want to have borrowing privileges from Flagler Beach. (The city lists $2,000 in library charges for service this year.) A cooperative agreement would necessarily eliminate that charge.
A cooperative would not cost the city money. Rather, once a system is established as a cooperative, “there would potentially be some additional funding from the state library because they would be part of a cooperative,” Albanese said. “Right now they get nothing for that. And that money would be used for materials and databases.” If anything, “there may be some savings on the part of Flagler Beach but I can’t tell you what that may be off the top of my head.”
The Flagler Beach city library this year is a $205,000 operation, up 100 percent from 2020, when it was a $132,000 operation. Salaries and benefits account for three quarters of the budge, with library materials such as books accounting for $18,000, or 9 percent of the budget. (See the full budget here.)
In comparison, the Flagler Public Library system has a $1.6 million budget (up 33 percent since 2020), 12 percent of which–$193,000–is devoted to library materials. (See the full budget here.)
County Commissioner Donald O’Brien, who is the commission’s liaison on the county’s Library Board of Trustees, brought up the possibility of consolidation in the context of a discussion at the last joint-government meeting gathering county and city officials, at the end of January. Those meetings were instigated by Flagler Beach, originally to help Flagler Beach lighten its burdens of Palm Coast and county residents crashing its beaches and zeroing out its parking spaces. It was perhaps in the spirit of financial cooperation that O’Brien, who–to Albanese’s recollection–had not discussed the issue at the Library Board of Trustees, brought up the possibility of library consolidation.
“Maybe at some point in the future, we could have dialogue with the city of Flagler Beach about helping or assuming or taking over the library in Flagler Beach,” O’Brien said. “I think the county could bring a lot to the table in terms of the county library resources, and I don’t know if that’s ever been discussed in the recent past, but I would like to put that on the table as something that maybe we can open for dialogue in the future.” O’Brien acknowledged that there’d been no interest in consolidation in the past, “but I’m wanting to reintroduce it because I think if we could bring it into the library system, we could really benefit some of the folks, the citizens and the residents and Flagler Beach.”
The Flagler Beach library dates back to a small stack of books that began accumulating at the Flagler Woman’s Club’s clubhouse in the 1950s, where it soon turned into a small library. The club asked the city for more room. The library moved to a corner of City Hall in 1978 (not the current building, but where the Building Department ended up some years later). The library moved to its current South Seventh Street location in 1981, when it took over a one-room school. The city renovated it and expanded it in 1997.
Mealy, a member of the Flagler Woman’s Club, has continued to champion the club’s legacy, as had the late Mary Ann Clark previously. But it was Clark some 20 years ago who had broached the controversial subject of consolidation, rejected then as now–and as O’Brien’s suggestion was, when Commission Chair Eric Cooley, who sat on the joint government panel, reported on O’Brien’s proposal at a city commission two weeks ago.
“I don’t think there’s need for it to be discussed further. I think we know what the answer is,” Mealy said at the time. “My answer is not only no, but hell no. And it’s not because I’m not being transparent. But this is an issue that we have discussed before. This library is very much an integral part of our city. And we don’t want to be part of the county.”
Commissioner Rick Belhumeur put it this way: “Two words: Fiercely independent.”
“I believe Commissioner Mealy has it right,” Commissioner Scott Spradley said. Commissioner James Sherman agreed on more neutral terms, and Mayor Suzie Johnston said the city fights for things that define it. “The library is one of them.”
On Thursday, City Manager Dale Marin wrote County Administrator Heidi Petito to formally decline the proposal, referring to the commission’s consensus. “The discussion culminated with the unanimous consensus that the City’s library should remain an independent City operation,” Martin wrote (after complimenting the county and Albanese on securing a $4 million grant that will be applied to the future $16 million South Branch Library in Bunnell.) .
But again: that was before Mealy learned (today) of the possibility of a cooperative, which would be attained through a mere inter-governmental (or “interlocal”) agreement similar to the one Flagler Beach has with the county for its IT needs. Albanese pointed to that IT agreement as already laying the groundwork for facilitating any technological cooperation that could be established between the two library systems, since the same IT department oversees both. Mealy, who also leads the city’s Citizens Academy–a weekly seminar for those interested in learning about the city’s government–said the academy’s next stop, next week, is the library, where she intends to have a conversation with Melissa Parish, the city librarian.
Albanese, for her part, stressed that she was neither having conversations about consolidation nor intending to approach the city about it, so as not to raise false alarms. (She did not contact a reporter today. It was the other way around.) “They would have to approach us if they want to be part of the county system or they want in any shape way or form share resource,” she said.