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Library system: Kitchigami board halts Hallett library inclusion

Kitchigami Regional Library System Executive Director Marian Ridge (center) answers questions concerning a budget she prepared for the costs to run the Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library in Crosby as a branch library. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
The Kitchigami Regional Library System board discusses Thursday the ongoing issue of whether to allow the Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library in Crosby into the regional system. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

PINE RIVER—Inclusion of the Crosby library into the Kitchigami system stalled Thursday after board members voiced concerns over financial impact on the library in Brainerd.

The action comes after nearly two years of consideration and countless hours of discussion, ending in a 4-4 tie vote with one member abstaining. The tie vote meant a motion to accept the library failed.

Board members voting against incorporating the independent library into the system were troubled by an estimated $64,000 hit the Brainerd Public Library budget would take, and questioned the long-term viability of the city of Crosby's contribution.

"With all respect, I think stability is important, and we certainly don't have it here," said Mary Koep, representing the city of Brainerd on the Kitchigami Regional Library System board. "In a group like this, there are always going to be different points of view. But I think respect is the glue that holds us together. And I do feel there's kind of a willy-nilly discussion that taking $64,000 from a major library is nothing. It's your problem. Figure it out folks. It really shows a lack of respect."

Voting in favor of the inclusion, Wayne Bohn of the Cass Lake City Council questioned whether the library board's directive should include consideration of the impacts of local government decisionmaking.

"It's bringing in a collection that my people in Cass Lake are now going to be able to access," Bohn said. "Our marching orders say that we are supposed to develop and expand the library services within the region."

Commitments wanted

Nailing down financial commitments from the city of Crosby and Crow Wing County was a missing piece of the puzzle that kept the library board from taking action at its January meeting, which itself was a continuation of discussion from the board's November meeting. In November, the board approved a motion to accept the Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library with a 7-2 vote, contingent on KRLS Executive Director Marian Ridge preparing a budget estimating one-time costs and three years of annual costs.

A March letter signed by Crow Wing County Board Chairman Doug Houge informed the KRLS board the county would not increase its contribution to the regional library system. The city of Crosby would cover $100,000 of the estimated $164,000 annual budget of its library, entirely funded by a gift from the Hallett Charitable Trusts. That leaves $64,000 that, without an increase to the county's contribution, would be shifted from the Brainerd library's funding.

"We have been firm and forthright that we do not intend to increase the library levy that Crow Wing County sends to Kitchigami Regional Library System as we see no public appetite for such an increase," the letter signed by Houge stated.

Can Crosby afford a library?

Much of Thursday's discussion centered on the long-term viability of the city of Crosby's commitment to financially supporting the Hallett library. The vast majority of financial support provided for the library since its inception has come from the Hallett Charitable Trusts. In February, the chair and executive director of the trusts wrote a letter committing $100,000 in annual contributions for five years, if the city went forward with its resolution to join KRLS.

Once this money is accepted by the city, it becomes public funds and represents the city's contribution to the library system, according to Ridge's budget analysis. There was no additional commitment from the city of Crosby, however, and board members worried aloud whether the city's $20,000 property tax levy would be enough to support the costs of keeping the lights on at the Hallett library. Each signatory to the regional library agreement is responsible for the upkeep of its own building and grounds; these costs are not covered by the KRLS budget.

Nancy Erickson, Bemidji City Council member, said the library in Bemidji is open 56 hours each week, and the costs of keeping it open are $74,000 each year. Since the Hallett library is open for 44 hours each week, Erickson wondered how $20,000 would cover the expenses.

"How can you keep your library open?" Erickson said. "If you're not going to increase your levy, I don't get it."

Rachel Reabe Nystrom, Crow Wing County commissioner, attended Thursday's meeting in Commissioner Paul Thiede's place. Nystrom said she was concerned with what might happen if the Hallett funding went away in the future.

"Everything is going to be great for year one and two and three, because the money is already there," Nystrom said. "When that money goes away, what is the mechanism that you are going to pick it up?"

KRLS board Chairman Neal Gaalswyk, Cass County commissioner, repeatedly said the city of Crosby committed to its financial obligations when its council passed a resolution requesting the Hallett library become part of the regional system.

Bohn agreed it wasn't the library board's purview to determine whether the city could meet that obligation forever.

"I get so frustrated by this discussion. Honestly, we're always being told that we're stealing money from Brainerd to give to Crosby," Bohn said. "We're not. The region is allocating money within the region, to expand and to enhance the region. ... I have to take them (the city of Crosby) at face value, and to second guess them and say I am going to take this paternalistic attitude and say, I'm going to tell the city of Crosby that you don't know what you're doing. I'm going to give them the respect as a unit of government, that they made this decision, that they thought this out."

Reed Olson, Beltrami County commissioner, just joined the board and Thursday was his first meeting. Olson said while Crosby was under the microscope, each local government involved made budget decisions every year. Olson pointed to a Brainerd Dispatch story outlining the Crow Wing County Board's decision to lower its property tax levy for a seventh straight year. He said the amount by which Crow Wing County lowered its levy was almost enough to cover the budgetary impact on the Brainerd Public Library.

"To pick on you guys as we're picking on Crosby, you guys are making a decision at a county level," Olson said. "We're all making decisions. And that's what contributes to whether or not a library is successful. So it's not just Crosby, it's also what the county is willing to do. I think we're unfairly judging Crosby, when we could be judging any one of our entities."

Gaalswyk said three of the five counties included in the joint powers agreement for the regional library system choose to contribute more than the statutory minimum. Crow Wing County is one of two contributing the minimum required by state law.

Ridge said Crosby's commitment would be dictated by the joint powers agreement. State law requires a library within a regional system be open 20 hours a week, so it would be the city's responsibility to ensure it was meeting those obligations.

The vote

After more than two hours of discussion, the board prepared to vote on a motion by Bohn to approve the budget as prepared, triggering the original motion to accept Crosby into the system.

Nystrom offered an additional motion for consideration.

"I would offer this motion, that the inclusion of the Crosby library would not pose an adverse effect on the other signatories in perpetuity," Nystrom said.

Audible reaction to Nystrom's motion could be heard.

"I don't think that's appropriate," Bohn said. "That would a drastic change."

Gaalswyk said he wouldn't recognize the motion, and noted any local governmental body could never assure anything it did remained in perpetuity.

Jim Hofer, Wadena County commissioner, said he would vote no on Bohn's motion.

"It does take too much resources from an existing branch," Hofer said.

Nystrom, Erickson and Koep also said they would vote no. Olson said he wasn't sure whether he would vote, because he was entering the issue now after two years of conversations. He asked what would happen if the board voted no.

"It means we're done," Ridge said. Ridge suggested the board should require the city of Crosby to wait a period of three to five years before returning with the same request.

"This has dominated this board for a year and a half now," she said.

In a roll call vote, Olson voted yes, along with Bohn, Gaalswyk and Tony DeSanto of the Pine River City Council. Dick Rutherford of the Park Rapids City Council, also attending his first library board meeting, chose to abstain. A 4-4 tie meant the motion failed.

The board took a recess after the lengthy discussion. Hofer, who the board often turns to on parliamentary matters, told the Dispatch a board member could make a motion to rescind Thursday's motion at a future meeting should they decide they've received additional information to change their vote. Hofer said he would have voted yes if the financial burden on the Brainerd library was lessened somehow.

How the regional library system works

The Kitchigami system, or KRLS, is one of 12 regional library systems in Minnesota, providing library service to more than 130,000 residents in Beltrami, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard and Wadena counties. The Hallett library is one of the last remaining independent libraries in the state, operated by the city of Crosby and funded mostly through city property taxes and the Hallett Charitable Trusts.

Both Crow Wing County and the city of Brainerd are signatories to the joint powers agreement governing the library system, meaning representatives from these governments serve on the board and property tax levy dollars are allocated to fund the system.

The county contributes a little more than $509,000 in tax dollars each year to KRLS, the minimum contribution required by state law. This means county residents have access to Kitchigami libraries and all amenities and services available—all residents except those residing within the city limits of Crosby. Those residents are excluded from Kitchigami library use, unless they purchase library cards, because they do not contribute to the county's library fund. Crosby's residents instead pay city taxes that support the Hallett library.

---UPDATE---

This story was updated to correctly reflect who has access to the Jessie F. Hallett Memorial Library in Crosby. It is available free of charge to anyone residing in School District No. 182. Anyone outside that district may pay a $20 fee to get a library card.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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