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Rural libraries pushing for permanent funding

SANTA FE, N.M. — A budget close to $50,000 may not seem like a lot to some nonprofit organizations, but to the volunteers running the library in Vallecitos, it’s an “unimaginable sum.”

But rural library supporters are dreaming big these days, pushing for a legislative appropriation that would create a permanent funding source for their operations.

The small Vallecitos library serves a community of an estimated 141 people in unincorporated Rio Arriba County. The library, also a community center, is housed in what was once a hardware store, estimated to date back to the 1880s.

With the exception of when some “hippie” settlers who moved in and grew marijuana on the top floor several decades ago, the structure had long been abandoned before the library moved in around 2013, according to board treasurer Marlene Fahey.

“There were no windows,” Fahey recalled. “The floors were all dirt.”

Renovations have largely been the handiwork of community members, and the facility is filled with donated furniture and materials. Today, the library sees between three and 12 daily visitors on its three open days per week.

It has about 2,000 books, though many of those are in boxes because of a lack of shelves. Fahey says the most popular offerings are the center’s free internet and public landline telephone.

The Vallecitos Community Center and Library provides a landline phone on its portal for locals to use, as well as free Wi-Fi.

The phone has been installed outdoors on the portal, and people can use it any time of day. According to Fahey and library board president Lorraine Alire, many residents’ homes are so remote that phone and electric companies can’t service them at all.

The library has had as many as 80 different devices connect to its Wi-Fi in a given month. Three public computers are housed in what was once the building’s living space for the hardware store owners. Fahey said people also use their own phones or computers in the library, because of the Wi-Fi, as well as on the portal or in their cars parked in the driveway.

Volunteer Edward Manzanares, who arrived at the library on a snowy afternoon recently so Fahey and Alire could head home, described the space as a “hidden gem.” It’s definitely more than a library and seems to function almost like a village living room or den.

Manzanares said it’s somewhere he can socialize with other residents, and he tries to stay there into the evening so locals can come by. Some nights he has stayed until 2 a.m., hanging out and watching Netflix on the computer.

The large front room at the entrance is also used for public meetings and parties, and the volunteers try to offer regular activities for local kids. Using the back kitchen, they make pizza or sandwiches with the children on Fridays when there’s no school. Locals schools run four days a week, with longer hours per day.

“I think the kids up here are kind of like the rest of us, where the fact if they can have internet access, use a computer and make pizza, that’s pretty special to them,” said Fahey.

But Fahey acknowledged that the facility is still in a “primitive” stage. The library operated on approximately $9,000, mostly from State Library aid, in 2018. And that was a high figure. The 2017 budget was closer to $3,000.

With such a small budget, the library crew doesn’t regularly have enough wood to heat the large front room during the winter. Ceiling lights haven’t been installed throughout the building.

Things could change if a bill now before the Legislature becomes law. It would establish a permanent fund for supporting and developing rural libraries. Funding for 50 libraries around the state would come from interest earnings on the endowment.

Backers of the idea have set their sights high. They are asking for $50 million for the endowment. A key legislative committee, meanwhile, has recommended $5 million.

Lorraine Alire, president of the board for the Vallecitos Community Center and Library, turns off a work light used to illuminate one of facility’s rooms. Items like ceiling lights are among the needs that could be met with a proposed state endowment fund for rural libraries.

The Vallecitos Library and Community Center, and the other small libraries would receive as much $45,000 a year if the $50 million fund were set up.

“Right now, if we had $3,000 to fix up some of the electricity, we would be thrilled,” said Fahey. The library’s supporters would like to make the building more “livable.” A more efficient heating solution, fixing spots in the portal that have been boarded over, and finishing the bathroom are all on the short list.

“If we had enough light, if we had heat, we could think more about programming,” she said.

A way to ‘sustain’ rural life

The Rural Library Initiative – the idea of a permanent fund for rural libraries – was spearheaded by Shel Neymark, who helped found Dixon’s Embudo Valley Community Library in 1992.

The Dixon facility has become a central location for educational and cultural activities, Newmark said. Many small libraries provide vital resources beyond books that residents otherwise don’t have close access to, Neymark said, ranging from computers and internet to after-school programs.

With help from state lawmakers, he’s pushing for the endowment that would support nonprofit, tribal and small municipal libraries located in communities with populations of 3,000 people or less. Recipient institutions would have to meet the state requirements for public libraries.

Neymark says many of the libraries face financial uncertainty. Rather than receiving tax dollars from cities or counties, most of them survive through individual donations, fundraisers, grant money and state aid, all of which can vary year to year.

Lynett Gillette, right, director of the El Rito Public Library, talks with Janiae Terrazas, 11, who comes in to use the computers.

And current public support or organizational grants can be tied to specific uses rather than for general operations, according to Lynett Gillette, the director of the El Rito Public Library, which serves another small community about 30 miles north of Española.

“These are really threatened institutions, I would say,” Neymark said.

The idea of a permanent fund for rural libraries has been on Neymark’s mind for the past 25 years, but it wasn’t until this past spring that he started putting the idea in motion. He teamed up with state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. Ortiz y Pino has a second home in Dixon and has frequented the Embudo Valley’s various programs.

“Just experiencing that library and seeing the incredible way in which a library like that one can function as a community builder, as a hub, it really becomes the heart of the community,” he said.

“I think it’s a great way of sustaining rural life in our state, which is a really important value that we have,” said Ortiz y Pino. On the House side, Neymark said Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, is the legislative proposal’s sponsor.

It includes two bills. One would establish the endowment. The second calls for a proposed constitutional amendment to go on the ballot in 2020. The amendment would list the 50 rural libraries as recipients of the funding.

If passed, the amendment would also create an exemption in the state’s constitutional anti-donation clause, which bars the use of public resources for private entities, like nonprofits. The prohibition is often effectively bypassed when dollars go to private groups that are under contract to provide services. Of the 50 rural libraries, 15 are nonprofits.

A cat named Priscilla wanders the book shelves at the El Rito Public Library.

If the amendment passes, the money would be allowed to go directly to the libraries and could be used toward whatever they needs most, including capital improvements. If the endowment statute becomes law, but the constitutional amendment fails, the libraries would have to apply for funding as grants from the State Library.

According to John Sandstrom, president of the New Mexico Library Association, funding issues aren’t exclusive to small libraries. “If they (lawmakers) support it, that’s wonderful, but my stance and the stance of NMLA is what can we do to help all libraries in the state,” said Sandstrom.

The organization is pushing for a higher budget for state aid to all libraries and money for a statewide broadband fund. It is also advocating for the Public Education Department to do an inventory of the current status of school libraries.

$5 million or $50 million?

Though the ask is for $50 million, the powerful Legislative Finance Committee set aside $5 million for this initiative when forming its proposed 2019 state budget. Ortiz y Pino said he hopes to convince lawmakers to provide more.

He noted that $50 million is less than 1 percent of the state’s $7.1 million budget. “In billions of dollars, it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Neymark said $5 million would still provide each library with a couple of thousand dollars each year. It’s better than nothing, he said, but he pointed out that the requested amount could help finance things like paid librarian positions, something several locations don’t have.

“Yes, we’d be very thankful for anything, but $45,000 a year, it would create incredible things for these communities,” said Neymark. “It would be a game-changer.”

The El Rito Library offers a set of china for people to check out. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The mention of the possible permanent fund brought an immediate smile to El Rito library director Gillette’s face. The library has been around since the 1980s.

Over several rooms in the building, built under the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, the library houses 16,000 books and DVDs, and seven public computers. It also offers a full dinnerware set available for checkout.

In 2018, the nonprofit operated with a budget of around $87,000. Sixty percent of that came from more than 160 individual donations.

“For a community as small as this and poor as this, I’m actually quite astounded,” said Gillette.

At the library last week, she pointed out two new sets of stairs. Decks on separate ends of the library were built last year, all through extra donations and patron volunteer work.

She thinks the community is sending a message about the library’s importance with their dollars.

“They’re pretty outspoken about wanting the library to continue and it has, through a lot of ups and downs, over 33 years,” she said. “I think there’s more and more being asked of us.”

Neymark stressed the wide-ranging offerings of rural libraries. In Taos County’s Talpa, he noted, the staff teaches ceramics and sewing. In Gila, in southwest New Mexico, the librarians give families free bags of groceries during the summer when kids aren’t getting school lunches. The Pueblo De Abiquiu Library & Cultural Center hosts the University of California’s archeology department to take teens on digs around the area.

The El Rito Public Library hosts regular movie nights, book talks, a weekly quilting group, literacy training for adults and a pre-literacy classes for toddlers. Last year, the library hosted a three-day archeological conference featuring scholars who have studied the nearby pueblo ruins and an 18th-century Spanish settlement.

“We seem to stay pretty busy, I wish we could do more,” said Gillette.

Christopher Foley, a 51-year-old retired restaurant manager who splits his time between El Rito and Albuquerque, views the library as a “meeting place for the community.” He visits the library several times a month, mainly to use the computers, check out DVDs or books on woodworking and furniture-making, and attend the movie nights and potlucks.

It’s given him a chance to meet different groups of people. He said there aren’t many other chances to do that in El Rito besides at one restaurant and during the annual artists’ Studio Tour. “This is it,” said Foley.

New Mexico lawmakers want to support small towns and their residents, Neymark said, but they often don’t know how. He said the libraries have direct knowledge of what their patrons could benefit from the most.

“Because we can address those issues on the grassroots level, we’re such a great model for rural development,” said Neymark.

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