MOREHEAD CITY — The Morehead City Council voted Tuesday evening to terminate the city’s lease with the Webb Family Trust for use of the Earle W. Webb Jr. memorial building as home of the city’s public library.
Based on the council’s unanimous action Tuesday, which was the result of multiple closed session discussions the council held with attorney Derek Taylor, effective Thursday, Dec. 31, the city will no longer occupy the Webb Memorial Library and Civic Center at 812 Evans St. The building is owned by the Webb Family Trust while Morehead City maintains its operations and upkeep costs, thanks to an agreement forged in 2006.
Council members said Tuesday they wish to continue library operations at a new location, perhaps a city-owned facility like the municipal building at 202 S. 8th St. or city hall at 706 Arendell St. Both buildings will become vacant this fall when all government functions move to the soon-to-be-completed city hall building on Bridges Street.
“The consensus has been in discussions we’ve had in the past, and obviously this has been going on for a while, we’ve had discussions to terminate further funding of the Webb Library building,” Mayor Jerry Jones said Tuesday after city manager Ryan Eggleston introduced the matter for discussion. The city issued a news release alongside the council’s decision Tuesday, though the meeting agenda did not indicate there would be a vote on the item that evening.
There was no extensive discussion, but council members indicated high building maintenance costs and dwindling outside support were the main reasons for the decision. Due to restructuring of the countywide public library system that took effect last year, Carteret County ended its $50,000 annual contribution to Webb Library. In the release, the city said it has paid more than $1 million for repairs and upkeep of the building.
“Our discussions up to this point have not been against the concept of Morehead City having its own library. What we are concerned about, and we’re making this decision about, is that we have a building that we don’t own that by contract we have unlimited liability to maintain, and that’s an untenable situation,” Councilman Bill Taylor said.
During discussions Tuesday, Councilman David Horton suggested forming a library committee as soon as possible to determine the location and other details pertaining to Morehead City’s public library.
When asked Wednesday for a more precise figure on what the city has spent on operations, upkeep and repairs for the Webb Library since 2006, Mr. Eggleston told the News-Times it was “well over a million dollars.”
The building dates back to 1929 and council members said its old age requires frequent repairs and upkeep.
According to information included in the city’s draft 2021-22 budget, which was released Friday, officials commissioned a study of the building and its needs several years ago and have completed a number of improvements, including remodeling sections of the downstairs to provide space for a circulation desk, replacing the windows on the first floor and electrical and lighting upgrades. The city has also upgraded the restrooms and installed an elevator to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Most recently the roof damaged in Hurricane Florence, which did significant damage to Carteret County, was replaced,” the budget reads, in part. “While significant progress has been made, there are additional improvements that were identified in the study mentioned above that are still needed including heat and ventilation system upgrades and new windows for the second floor and related exterior repairs to lintels to name a few.”
The draft budget allocates $155,675 for library operations next year, up from $130,000 budgeted this year. Mr. Eggleston said it is yet to be determined how the council’s decision Tuesday could affect the final library budget for fiscal year 2022.
Webb Library’s entire staff was furloughed in March 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and later laid off in May after Mr. Eggleston was concerned of potential negative budget impacts as a result of the pandemic. He originally recommended funding only basic building upkeep costs in fiscal year 2020-21, but ultimately agreed to at least partially fund library operations after community pushback.
Webb Library Director James Swann told the News-Times Wednesday he was not aware the council was considering moving the library before its vote Tuesday, saying the decision appeared to “come out of the blue.” He suggested the city had been in discussion with the Webb Family Trust about the lease, but said he was not involved in those talks.
When asked if the city tried to renegotiate its 99-year lease agreement with the Webb Family Trust, Mr. Eggleston said, “We have had meetings and communication with the Trust over the years, but beyond that we have no further comment at this time.”
Mr. Eggleston said all current library staff and volunteers would be retained.
Mr. Swann said he could see the advantage of moving the library into a new location, saying the present building is costly to maintain and limited on space. He said his staff has to frequently cull the library’s collection due to lack of shelf space at the Webb. A larger space would allow the library to expand its collection and perhaps offer more study and meeting rooms.
Other than a few items that are part of the Webb Family Trust’s private collection, Mr. Eggleston said Morehead City purchased, using public funds, the library’s more than 18,000 items. The trust owns most of the other materials inside the building, including all the shelving and furniture.
A representative with the Friends of the Webb Library could not be reached.
Reporter's note: This article was last updated at 6:39 p.m. Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
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