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Cash-strapped Minn. cities cut library services

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Library for sale
A for sale sign hangs on the Rosalie E. Wahl branch of the Washington County library system in Lake Elmo, Minn., on Oct. 27, 2011. The city council is pulling its money out of the county system and starting its own library with donated books and a mostly volunteer staff.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

In the back room of Lake Elmo's public works building, boxes of books are stacked halfway to the ceiling. Books like "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" and "North and South" are piled on tables and jut from open cardboard containers. More than 5,000 books have been donated for the city's new library, scheduled to open Jan. 1.

"There is a lot of culling to be done," said Mayor Dean Johnston, who has championed the effort.

"We will have a modest collection," he said. "But we'll be able to respond to community needs."

The city actually has a library already, the Rosalie E. Wahl branch of the Washington County system, but that facility is set to close at the end of December because of budget cuts. Faced with a half-million dollar shortfall in 2012, the county library director proposed replacing the library, currently open 20 hours per week, with a kiosk consisting of a bank of lockers where patrons could pick up and drop off books they'd checked out online.

That wasn't acceptable to Lake Elmo, which has had a library for decades. The city council voted 4-1 to pull its money out of the county system — it contributes nearly $300,000 annually — and start its own library with donated books and furniture and a mostly volunteer staff.

The situation in Lake Elmo exemplifies how quickly matters can get complicated as efforts to rein in local government spending run counter to the service expectations of some residents.

Cities and counties across the state are facing tight budgets because of cuts to state aid and a struggling economy. They're setting priorities and making choices about what should be funded and what shouldn't. While trying to preserve so-called core services like police and fire, local governments across Minnesota have sought to save on libraries, cutting hours, staff and acquisitions budgets.

FROM BOOKS TO INFORMATION

Some argue the era of the library has passed, that information sources like the Internet have made them obsolete. "I could live the rest of my life and not go to a library," said Greg McGrath, a Lake Elmo resident who works in St. Paul. "Everything is available online... Children are not deprived. This isn't a Third World country."

Looking through donations
Judy Gibson, right, and Rosemary Meier, members of the Friends of Lake Elmo Library, look through items that have been donated for the city's new library facility. "It's fun to open the boxes and see what people have donated," says Gibson.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

But demand for library services in Minnesota has trended upward in recent years, whether for children, job-seekers or people who don't have Internet access at home. Borrowers increased from 3.5 million to 4.2 million between 2003 and 2010, according to the Minnesota State Library Agency. The number of checked-out items rose from 49 million to 59 million. Use stagnated in 2010, which some attribute to the simple fact that libraries are open less often.

"Homeschoolers go to the public library for materials to support their children," said Director of State Library Services Nancy Walton. "In communities where the school has consolidated or the school media center has closed, by default the library becomes the school media center. We have computer classes for the elderly. We help them with resources to stay independent. Libraries provide new immigrants the ability to interact with English speakers. We have workshops and training and workforce development-related activities. The library's role is exploding."

"Unfortunately, if you are not a library user," Walton says, "you judge libraries by the way they were when you were a child. And libraries have changed tremendously. They reflect the needs of the community. It's a knife in my heart when a library struggles to survive."

COMMUNITIES CUT BACK

In the past, budgets tended to increase from year to year, but recently, dollars allocated to libraries have declined. Statewide, according to the Library Agency, total revenue decreased from $216.2 million in 2009 to $214.6 million in 2010, despite an influx of millions from the Legacy Amendment, dollars earmarked for arts, cultural and historical programming. Walton expects more severe reductions to show up in statistics for 2011.

Cuts have been especially dramatic at the local level. According to a 2011 report from the Office of the State Auditor, cities slashed library operations and capital outlays by 42 percent between 2005 and 2009.

You can see this trend across Minnesota. Faribault and Albert Lea reduced library hours. Fergus Falls cut back on summer staffing.

In Le Sueur, part of the Waseca-Le Sueur Regional Library System, library funding was cut dramatically in 2010, reducing its materials budget by half and forcing it to close for two weeks in order to save on staff costs. Now, looking ahead to 2012, allocations are being cut again. As a result, the library — normally open six days a week — will be closed every Friday in January and February and will no longer carry magazine subscriptions.

Le Sueur librarian Dianne Pinney hopes private funding sources will pick up some of the slack. "We have very generous people in Le Sueur who adore the library," she said. "We have a good Friends of the Library organization that has raised a lot of money. If we have any magazines, it will be thanks to [them]. But how long can you rely on this? It's not sustainable."

GETTING BOOKS INTO HANDS

So, libraries are trying innovative methods for getting books into public hands. The Arrowhead Library System runs a program called Mail-A-Book, whereby rural residents without library access can have their selections mailed to them. And in Washington County, which is trimming its 2012 general and library budgets because of reductions in state aid and other factors, they're filling the gap with kiosks.

One of these is outside City Hall in Hugo where a bank of 40 nondescript metal lockers stands. These are the same type of lockers some police departments use to store criminal evidence, but here they serve as the local branch of the county library system. Patrons check out a book online, then go to the kiosk and  enter a code, which opens a door and allows access to the requested materials. Books are delivered to the kiosk twice a week, the same as to the smaller county branches.

The kiosk, launched in July last year, is one of the first in the state and the result of a federal grant to Washington and Carver Counties. "The holds placed in our system, 80 percent are placed online," said Washington County Library Director Patricia Conley. "This is maximizing technology for a really good purpose."

"We're in downsizing mode," she said, "But we're still trying to expand access to our collection. This is a new kind of bookmobile."

Adds Hugo City Administrator Mike Ericson, who sees people using the kiosk at all hours of the day and night, "This is one more thing besides the tornado we get to be known for."

Washington County plans to install similar kiosks in Marine on St. Croix and Newport and could have made the same arrangement with Lake Elmo.

WHO PAYS?

In times of tight budgets, Conley said, it behooves the county to put resources where they'll affect the most people — in bigger libraries like Woodbury and Forest Lake.

"We have a larger focus as a county and a larger swath of responsibility than a city. We're taking a half million dollars out of the budget [for 2012]. We're going from 91 to 80 staff members. That's why we're doing it. We're not in the business of reducing access." The financial pressure on the county system is intensified by Lake Elmo's decision to withdraw its contribution from the county system.

Of course, the county — which had a median income in 2009 of $75,421 compared to the state median income of $55,621 — could choose to raise taxes to keep paying for libraries. But that tends to be a less viable option these days, given high unemployment rates and a strong anti-tax sentiment.

"In this terrible economy, the last thing we want to do is increase people's taxes," said county board of commissioners chair Gary Kriesel. "The county focuses on core and essential services. I'm not saying that libraries aren't a high value asset. But the fact is... we can't put a library in every community. We can't afford it."

The county lowered the property tax levy it plans to ask from residents in 2012, despite reductions in state aid. "I'm very proud of Washington County," Kriesel said. "Over the last three or four years, we've absorbed millions in losses of state aid and revenue reductions. We've done a tremendous job. We have (one of the) lowest tax rates in the state."

Come January, the county will back a truck up to the library in Lake Elmo and pack up all the books and shelves and computers. It will install no kiosk in its place. The inventory will be distributed throughout the system, Conley said, and the furniture will go to county surplus. Asked how long it will take to move everything, Conley said, "We've never done this before, so we don't know."

Though the majority of Lake Elmo residents also use other branches of the Washington County system, Mayor Johnston argues it's important to have a library in town.

"It's a crucial part of the character of the community," he said. "The (regional) model for libraries in Minnesota, they say it's for efficiency. I say it neglects the needs of the smaller communities. I disagree with the approach the county is taking to have a small number of large libraries that forces everyone to commute. I don't see a lot of bicycles in front of the county libraries."

Inside the Rosalie E. Wahl on a Wednesday afternoon, 10-year-old Cory Smith comes in to peruse Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books. He said he wants there to be a library in town, though he wishes it would be open more often, carry more books and be bigger. "Take out the bathrooms," he suggests.

The city hasn't decided whether the new facility will be housed in the current county location or in the community arts center. It also hasn't appointed a library board or gained entrance into the state's interlibrary loan system.

Donations
Boxes of books are stacked on the showroom floor at Fury Dodge Chrysler in Lake Elmo, Minn., on Oct. 27, 2011. The dealership is a drop-off spot for residents wanting to donate books to the city's new, independent library.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Washington County has offered to provide residents with library cards, and therefore access to the larger collection, for $60 apiece, the rate it charges non-resident borrowers. And Lake Elmo is considering paying the fee for residents who want to go that route.

But that could jack up the bottom line and wind up costing the city more than it was paying to be part of the county system, said city council member Anne Smith, the lone vote against the defection. "What about library cards if we have to purchase them? What if it's 3,000 people who want them? That's $180,000. We don't have those answers and yet we're going to open a library on January 1. When we voted for this, I asked the council to wait one year, to take the kiosk and do the due diligence to understand can we really afford to do this or not. I lost."

Obstacles aside, community enthusiasm can be measured by the piles of donated books growing at sites around the city. Inside Fury Dodge Chrysler, a drop site near downtown, a stack of boxes and bags sprawls near a shiny new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. "I think for any community to truly be a community, a library and post office are the two essential pieces," dealership owner Jim Leonard said. "This is the backbone of the community. It's vital."

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