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Money raised for Citrus County’s New York Times subscription will go back to donors

After Citrus commissioners voted down the digital subscription, library leaders say they cannot accept thousands of dollars from GoFundMe pages.

When Citrus County commissioners signaled their opposition to a digital subscription to the New York Times for local library cardholders, some outraged readers responded with their wallets.

Multiple online fundraisers sprung up to foot the $2,700 bill for digital access to the Times. At least 15 GoFundMe pages were active Thursday, having raised more than $7,000.

Related: Read More: Citrus commissioners vote down New York Times digital subscriptions

One problem: The Citrus library system says it cannot use the money after the commissioners, in a 3-2 vote Tuesday, rejected signing onto the digital subscription for the county’s 70,000 library cardholders.

“The money has to go back to the people that donated it,” said Sandy Price, the chair of both the local Friends of the Library and the Library Advisory Board.

By Friday morning, most of the GoFundMe pages had been taken down.

“I can confirm that in light of the commissioners’ recent vote, we have refunded all donors who gave to campaigns related to the Citrus County Libraries,” a GoFundMe spokeswoman wrote in an email. “It’s important to know that the platform is backed by the GoFundMe Guarantee, which means funds are guaranteed to go to the right place or donors will get a refund.”

Related: Related Story: Welcome to Citrus County, Fla., home to the culture war for a day

Citrus Library Director Eric Head, speaking through a county spokeswoman amid the brouhaha, explained simply that officials cannot pay for what they do not have. County spokeswoman Cynthia Oswald said the digital subscription would have required a contract agreement, which in Citrus needs to be approved by the commission and signed by the commission chair.

Library leaders said they are stuck, even if the private money is there now to cover the cost.

Price said she has not personally spoken to any of the various online fundraising organizers, who had listed hometowns all around the country, from Massachusetts to Texas. “If it’s money that’s given for the specific digital subscription, we cannot take that,” she said.

Related: Related Story: Amid Trump-NYT controversy, everyone has a thought for Citrus County

A few people early during the controversy made checks out directly to the libraries, Head said, for an amount under $200. “They will be contacted to see if they would like their donation to be just a general donation or returned,” he wrote in an email.

Citrus County commissioners, from left, Jimmie T. Smith, Scott Carnahan, Brian Coleman, Ron Kitchen, and Jeff Kinnard attend a meeting of the Board of County Commissioners of Citrus County on Tuesday, November 19, 2019, at the Citrus County Courthouse in Inverness. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

The debate was ignited when Commissioner Scott Carnahan spoke out against the subscription at a meeting Oct. 24, saying, “Fake news, I agree with President Trump.”

Those words resounded far beyond Citrus, a conservative county in West Central Florida known as a destination for its natural springs and manatees.

Related: Related Story: Commissioners call New York Times ‘fake news,’ deny library funding for digital subscriptions

Dozens of people showed up at the meeting Tuesday before the board voted. Commissioner Jimmie Smith said he would support private funds paying for the subscription, but others said the county had no policy for such a funding model.

Several opponents said they would like to see the county use $2,700 elsewhere, to feed the hungry or house homeless veterans. But Price said those people misunderstood, and the library already had the money in its budget.

“You can’t take money out of the library budget and give it to some other faction of the county,” she said.

What’s next?

“We’re going to regroup, and we’re going to go forward because our library needs to get in the digital age,” Price said. She doesn’t know yet how the libraries will gain commissioners’ approval. She has not spoken to them.

The two commissioners who voted in favor of the subscription wanted the digital access to replace the county’s current print plan, which costs $2,900. Citrus libraries receive hard copies of several newspapers, including the Citrus County Chronicle, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

The Citrus County Library Lakes Region at 1511 Druid Rd. on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019 in Inverness. The Citrus County Commison was looking to eliminate the cost of the New York Times digital subscriptions because they say it is "Fake News." A former Mets GM has stepped up and wants to donate money to the Citrus County Libraries to cover the cost of the subscriptions. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Price said the Friends of the Library is a fundraising group that each year makes about $60,000 through two book sales to help the libraries. That money goes toward expanding the collection and renovating parts of the branch buildings.

The Friends will still accept donations, she said, but not any earmarked for the Times subscription.

Kevin Leahy, from Cincinnati, Ohio, ran one GoFundMe page that took in about $2,100 before being shut down. He said his mother was a librarian.

“I don’t know their legal constraints, and I want to be respectful of that,” he said of Citrus. “But on the face of it, it feels like an absurd position.”

Another fundraiser, Kevin Gallagher, of Boston, updated the more than 150 donors to his page, which had raised $3,400, about the commission’s vote.

“I’m not comfortable changing this campaign’s mission when those who have contributed, contributed to a specific cause,” he wrote. “However, one suggestion has stood out: change the mission to donate these funds to those running against the county commissioners. Seems like a great cause, the root of the problem. Thoughts?”

By Friday, he switched course.

“I’ve decided to just have GoFundMe refund everyone,” he wrote. “Changing the focus is way too much for me to do and the suggestions of ‘what else’ can be done is overwhelming. So thanks again, it’s very unfortunate this didn’t work out the way we wanted.”