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Voters likely to decide fate of three county library branches

The Western News | February 6, 2024 7:00 AM

The fate of the three branches of the Lincoln County Library will likely be in voter’s hands in June.

After celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of the county library system a little less than four years ago, the branches in Libby, Troy and Eureka now seem to be at the mercy of the voters.

The county commissioners unanimously approved on Jan. 31 a resolution to form a library district and have it placed on the ballot for the June 4 primary election.

There was considerable discussion about having the county Library Board circulate a petition that would require 2,236 signatures to have it placed on the ballot.

But a narrow window of time to collect signatures was deemed an obstacle.

“For it to be on the June 4 ballot, I need to know by the end of March,” county Election Administrator Melanie Howell said. “I don’t know if we can get it on the ballot unless there is a resolution. The signatures need to be verified and with the school and other elections, it would be a very tight time frame.”

District 1 Commissioner Brent Teske said, “it all comes down to a vote of the taxpayers. The quickest way to do it is to pass a resolution and get it on the ballot. It’s democracy in action.”

District 3 Commissioner Josh Letcher said having the libraries form their own district would be a huge benefit to the county.

“In addition to the 3.49 voter approved mills that helps fund the libraries, they also receive $250,000 from the county,” Letcher said. “To get that back would be a huge benefit to the county because without it, we’d have to look at cutting services.”

The county faced a $1.6 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2023-24. Along with some cuts to the library budget ($17,000) and Sheriff’s Office ($191,000), the commissioners used the last of the federal American Rescue Plan Act money - $800,000 - to make up the shortfall. The county also used some money from the Local Assistance and Tribal Consistency Fund to help balance the budget. It has received $12 million from the fund in each of the last two fiscal years.

It’s not the first time the Library has considered forming an independent district. Former director Rick Ball sought the change in 2015 to, “ensure stable funding for the libraries, especially in the face of shrinking county budgets.”

At the time, former county Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson said the library budget was slightly less than $400,000 a year. The library, from its voted levy of 3.49 mills, received $122,683.

Library Board Committee Chair Barb Hvizdak said Ball resigned in October 2017 and there was no further discussion regarding a levy.

But costs have increased and with timber receipts crashing in the county and other factors, the library budget is now $540,000.

"It was the Commissioners who first brought up the idea of a dedicated levy request or library district as a consistent revenue stream for the library," Hvizdak said. "That was at least two years ago when Jerry Bennett was chair of the Commission. It's common knowledge that timber receipts have decreased over the last few decades while county government and associated costs have increased.  The library currently has a dedicated levy of 3.49 mills, approved by voters in the mid 1990s. In the 30 years since, the library has never asked for more despite our own cost increases. The Commissioners have consistently supplemented the dedicated 3.49 with additional mills from the general fund. Two years ago they informed the library they would not continue to do so and suggested the funding options. In the two years interim, the library board has researched the options, district vs levy, and feels formation of a District is the best option to pursue."

At the Jan. 31 meeting, Letcher said he received all negative comments about it when word got out that the libraries may be on their own. Those against the library system operating independently were related to control of library operations.

“But we don’t dictate policies, the books or how they are operated,” Letcher said. “Control sits with the board and those are positions people have the opportunity to become involved with.”

The board of trustees is made up of five appointed volunteers, who may serve two consecutive five-year terms. They are responsible for determining policies, procedures and purposes of the library. Trustees are responsible for developing and submitting an annual budget and for hiring the director.

The current board members are Annie Gassmann and Michelle Bianco, both members at large, as well as committee Chair Hvizdak, Eureka representative; Laura Finley, Troy representative; and Kerri Teisberg, Libby representative.

Bianco spoke during Wednesday’s meeting. She said she was commenting as a citizen, not a board member.

“There was a letter circulated that is very harmful to the library about the control of content, but the public still has a voice,” Bianco said. “Please come and speak out.”

Library Director Alyssa Ramirez said there will be three public information meetings the week of Feb. 14 for residents to hear about the library district initiative.

The first one is scheduled at the Libby branch for 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12. The meeting at the Troy branch will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13. The final one at the Eureka branch is set for 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15.

The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed library district at 11 a.m. March 6.

Ramirez shared some information about the proposal. It will be county-wide, have a five-member board and require a mill levy of 13.49 mills, 10 more than the current voted levy. If voters approve the mill levy, it would increase the annual tax on a $200,000 home about $36.42.

Ramirez pointed out that the voter-approved 3.49 mills would cease to exist if the county stopped operating the libraries.

Other information shared by Ramirez on the library’s website about the initiative is that the library is currently funded at $21 per capita, below the Montana average of $31 per capita.

Ramirez also shared that the library would expand hours at its three branches, increase staff and services, such as continuing and expanding early literacy and after school programs as well as providing computer and technology classes and expanded support for job seekers.

She also pointed out that if the mill levy doesn’t pass, it could lead to the closure of library branches, reduced hours and a halt to the Troy Library and Opportunity Center until money is found to operate the facility. The county got a $50,000 grant from the state nearly two years ago for a preliminary architectural report for the new facility.