Semmes library a hot topic for Mobile County Commission, which postpones vote

Semmes-area residents fearing that their treasured library might be jeopardized by a loss of county support received some reassurance Thursday at an occasionally contentious meeting of the Mobile County Commission.

The long-term situation of the library remains undetermined. All three county commissioners share the view that the current lease on the library building is a bad deal. While they did agree on Thursday to postpone a decision to March 27, at least two of them have signaled that they still intend to give notice that the county won't renew the lease under the current terms.

Aside from the lease, county funding for the branch is higher than for other outlying branches, and unlike Semmes, other local municipalities bear a share of the costs for their libraries. Commissioners still want an adjustment, but said they don't intend to drop the fledgling city of Semmes into a budget crisis midway through its fiscal year.

"We will never pull the rug out from under anybody," said District 1 Commissioner Merceria Ludgood toward the end of Thursday's discussion. "Nobody expects, I didn't expect, the city of Semmes to be respondent in a fiscal year where they didn't even have an opportunity to budget for it ... That's not how we do business. We don't blindside people around here. We've never done that. We don't do that to the people."

Despite lingering unknowns, supporters seemed reassured that the foundation had been laid for an amicable solution. Among them was Diane Moore, who said afterward, "I feel like there's been a turn."

The situation goes back at least as far as 2007, when the county moved to fund the development of a new Mobile Public Library at the site of a former Eckerd drug store at the corner of Moffett and Wulff Roads. The building is owned by CVS, which has a drugstore across the street; the deal to put the library there, with an initial 10-year lease, was spearheaded by Steve Nodine, then District 2 commissioner, who called the location "perfect."

The library opened in January 2009. In August 2010 residents voted to incorporate and the city of Semmes officially came into being in spring 2011.

Consequently, there's some discussion of whether the Semmes Branch of the Mobile Public Library is really the Semmes Library. Backers argue that it serves a far greater area - Semmes Mayor David Baker said it is "a regional library in every sense of the word" - and it actually lies outside the Semmes city limits. That point evidently came as a surprise to District 1 Commissioner Merceria Ludgood in late February, well after she signaled her opposition to the lease renewal. On Thursday, District 3 Commissioner Jerry Carl made a point of asking Baker for a clear ruling on whether the building was or wasn't in Semmes. Told that it wasn't, Carl said "I would have lost money on that" if he'd made a bet.

Yet there's no question Semmes has a sense of ownership. In 2009 members of a fundraising committee were recognized for bringing in more than $340,000 to help get it off the ground. Moore and others refer to the library as "the heart of Semmes."

Semmes is within District 2, meaning it's represented by Connie Hudson. Hudson has said the current dispute arose in late January, when she got word that Ludgood and Carl intended to oppose renewal of the lease, which would extend the deal another 10 years under the same terms.

On Tuesday night, Hudson held an "informational meeting" at the Semmes Community Center to discuss what had happened since then and where things stood now. For many, a video from the commission's Feb. 23 meeting was a source of concern. In it, Ludgood referred to the lease as "actually outrageous" and "really unfair," adding that she'd was not willing "to go into another long-term lease where basically we are being taken to the cleaners." Carl said he'd "discovered this lease when I first got elected in 2012, and I put it in my phone to remind me in 2016 to bring it up. So I'm glad we're doing this."

The lease actually expires Sept. 30, but the county must give six months' notice if it doesn't intend to renew, meaning a deadline looms on March 30. Signaling that the county doesn't want to renew the lease doesn't preclude a new deal, and it doesn't mean the library will simply cease to exist without one - but the short timetable and aggressive talk left many in Semmes distraught.

"I completely realize the importance of the library to Semmes and the surrounding community," Hudson said on Tuesday. "I want y'all to realize I understand that. I am your advocate."

Hudson and others presented information showing that the Semmes library benefits from substantially different funding structure than other outlying branches. It costs the county more and Semmes doesn't pay in as other municipalities do. Their shares range from a low of $3,000 in Bayou La Batre up to $180,000 for Saraland. Citronelle, Prichard, Mt. Vernon, Satsuma and Chickasaw also pony up, according to information shared by Hudson at the Tuesday night meeting.

In 2016 the county provided $162,000 for library service in Semmes - far ahead of second-place Prichard, which received $63,011. But it also paid out another $174,245 in "operational funds:" lease, water, electricity.

The county doesn't bear those costs at other outlying branches, and that's a political problem. "I think this was a bad deal from the beginning," Hudson said of the lease. The challenge now was to deal with "what has been dropped in my lap, what has been dropped in your lap, what has been dropped in the mayor's lap."

At times the situation had the look of a good cop-bad cop routine. Hudson wondered more than once why Ludgood was so critical of the deal now, when she'd evidently supported it in 2007; and she faulted Carl for telling people she could support the library with her discretionary educational funds, which she said she'd already committed to a grant program for schools in her district.

Moore, speaking at the Tuesday meeting, recounted the intense community fundraising campaign that had raised more than $340,000 to stock the new library. That led Hudson to say she thinks Semmes will have to step up again with some city funding. "I don't have two commissioners who - They're not concerned about who had barbecues," she said. "They're concerned about their constituents and the fact that their libraries are getting substantially less. I'm just telling you what I'm up against, trying to deal with the other two in this situation."

After the Tuesday night session, Baker said, "As you can see, there are some issues between the commissioners. I think that's a fair statement."

That fractious tone carried over somewhat into Thursday's commission work session, a time to discuss matters slated to come up for a vote on Monday, March 13. Library backer Kim Leousis challenged Ludgood and Carl to respond, alleging that making an issue of the library on short notice was, in effect, a move to sabotage it.

Carl rose to the challenge. "You want to blame me as being the bad guy here," he said, "but in reality you've had 10 years to get ready for this lease to expire. What has the city of Semmes done? Well, nothing. And I understand that. It snuck up on all of us."

He went on to add that Grand Bay had a library he'd like to fund. "Why should I turn my back on my district with these funds, and give 'em to Semmes? It doesn't make sense. Now, I'm trying my best to work with you. I'm being very patient. I've gotten all the rude emails, I've gotten all the hate phone calls. If you want to blame somebody, you can blame your own commissioner. She's the one responsible for keeping up with that lease. Not District 3, not Jerry Carl."

"That is a very sad attitude," said Leousis.

"Oh really," said Carl. "Well, you tell that to the folks in Grand Bay."

Ludgood did not directly address the question about her 2007 vote on the library in detail, saying "I'm not engaging in the back and forth" of a blame game. But she did imply that the library deal was under way before she joined the commission. Press-Register archives indicate she has a point: In a September 2007 story, Nodine says a location for the library hadn't yet been secured. Ludgood was sworn in on Oct. 18 of that year, and by Dec. 7 the library was virtually a done deal.

"It's very complicated, and Mr. Nodine was very zealous as he pursued this," said Ludgood, putting significant emphasis on the word "zealous."

Ludgood went on to clarify that "I'm not saying I don't want to be in a lease with CVS, I'm saying this is a bad deal." Signaling the intent not to renew the lease was simply a necessary move to get a better deal, she said.

Carl, likewise, said that CVS would have no incentive to negotiate unless the county signaled its willingness to walk. "Let's at least get them to the table and figure out what we can do," he said. "We can't keep going down this same road we're going down."

County attorney Jay Ross said he had opened negotiations with CVS. It might be possible to buy the building or to get a year-to-year lease on better terms, he said, but possibilities haven't boiled down to hard numbers yet. And Baker said Semmes likely will be willing to shoulder a portion of the costs, but he and the city council have to hear the numbers before making a commitment.

On those conciliatory notes, commissioners agreed to postpone their vote from Monday to March 27. Ludgood said she didn't see much point in the delay, since announcing the county's desire to end the lease is a necessary step. But Hudson ha argued that it would give a little more time for Ross' negotiations to bear fruit. Carl, while sharing Ludgood's view, agreed to the postponement in the interest of showing good will.

Ludgood said she wanted to challenge the implication that the library was threatened by power games among the commissioners.

"What I dislike the most is the suggestion that this is some kind of internal thing among us," she said. "It is none of that. All of us care as much about Semmes as Commissioner Hudson does. The people who live there don't vote for us, but we still represent them."

"We've got to get a better deal," she said. "We've got a lot of different options on the table ... but we don't want to get locked into another 10 years of this. That's all I've been saying."

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