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Library employees, supporters, ask commissioners for higher wages

Jamie Menderhall Turner, ARLS employee
Athens-Clarke County government
Jamie Mendenhall Turner holds up a sign while addressing ACC Commissioners at a Tuesday hearing on the county's budget.

Athens-Clarke County commissioners will likely spend a lot of time later this week discussing raises for library employees, after a budget hearing on Tuesday.

Athens-Clarke County has a minimum $15 per hour wage for county employees. But, the staff of the Athens Regional Library System aren’t county employees; much of the money for libraries across Georgia comes from state funding, although Athens-Clarke County provides some funding for library services as well.

Now, library staff are asking county lawmakers to bolster their salaries, citing high turnover rates caused by lower pay, as well as trouble making ends meet as the cost of living in and around Athens rises.

At a public budget hearing Tuesday night, the majority of public comment came from supporters and employees of the library. Jamie Mendenhall Turner, one of those employees, said, "Our turnover rate is like a never-ending revolving door, and it is becoming really frustrating to lose good people who could do so much good for the library who love their job, but they can't stay there because they can't afford to live in Athens."

Another library staffer, Elizabeth Hood, asked whether commissioners saw the same value in library staff that the community seems to.

"I feel as if the work I'm doing - this challenging, meaningful work - while invaluable to my community, is not valued by my community leaders," she said. "That feeling of belonging that I've always felt in Athens flickers every time I get my pay."

Commissioners also heard from the library’s director, Valerie Bell.

"Since I arrived in 2015, it has been our mission to raise the staff salaries," Bell said. "We managed to do that with your help a few years ago and moved the needle from $7.75 an hour to $10.00 an hour. "We come to you this year requesting full funding in order to raise our base salary to $15.00 an hour."

The Athens Regional Library System currently has several job openings listed with a pay rate of $9 per hour.

Local author Jon Jefferson spoke about the importance of the library to the Athens community.

"The two places I go in Athens where I see the greatest diversity of people having a vital, active connection with this community are the YMCA and the library," Jefferson said.

While Tuesday’s meeting was an opportunity for the public to weigh in, commissioners will take a deep dive into the details of the budget at a work session on Thursday, when the library pay issue is expected to come up again.

There will be one further opportunity for public comment on June 7th. Commissioners are set to vote on the budget at that meeting as well.

Martin Matheny is WUGA's Program Director and a host and producer of our local news program 'Athens News Matters.' He started at WUGA in 2012 as a part-time classical music host and still hosts WUGA's longest-running local program 'Night Music' which is heard on WUGA and GPB Classical. He lives in Normaltown with his wife, Shaye and dog, Murphy.