Merger talks advance

Minneapolis Public Library system poised to join forces with Hennepin County libraries

More than three decades ago, local legislators introduced a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that called for merging the Minneapolis and Hennepin County library systems.

The idea had been agreed upon several years earlier by both sides, but the Minneapolis Public Library Board went on record in 1971 opposing the bill. Members argued there was no guarantee Minneapolis would be represented on a new board appointed by Hennepin County Commissioners, and the legislation died in committee.

Fast forward more than 35 years, and discussions about consolidating the two systems are once again well under way. This time, though, officials with the Minneapolis Public Library system and the city aren't opposed to the concept. Facing a financial crisis that has already prompted the indefinite closure of three libraries, members of the Minneapolis Public Library Board are looking long and hard at solutions that will achieve long-term financial solvency for the city's system.

Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials commissioned two committees to study the issue, and the work of both seems headed toward the same conclusion: merging the two library systems is the best way to get at the root of the problems plaguing the Minneapolis Public Library system. The Committee on the Future of Libraries in Hennepin County (CFLHC) recommended a consolidation of the two systems at its final meeting Feb. 15. The Library Advisory Committee (LAC) plans to hold its last meeting Feb. 27, where it is expected to vote on a recommendation.

While other options - such as revising the property tax and local government aid (LGA) formula for the Minneapolis library system or just sharing control of Central Library with Hennepin County - have also been examined, officials on all sides seem to agree that other options don't go far or deep enough in solving the crisis the city's library system is facing and won't improve service for residents.

While Library Board President and CFLHC member Anita Duckor warned that a merger is far from a done deal, she encouraged fellow Library Board members to view the situation as a way to bring together &#8220the best of both worlds.”

&#8220I think we should be looking at this as a win-win,” Duckor said.

Three governmental entities - the Library Board, Minneapolis City Council and Hennepin County Board of Commissioners - have to agree to see it that way as well. If all three vote in favor of a merger, officials will likely turn to the Legislature to pass enabling legislation amending the city charter and allowing for countywide taxing authority to support the newly merged library system.

Merger details

Officials serving on the CFLHC have outlined the basic structure a consolidation of the two systems could follow.

– The Minneapolis Public Library system would be merged into the county's library system, with Minneapolis Public Library employees becoming county employees and Hennepin County assuming ownership of all libraries. The name of the new system would remain the Hennepin County Library system.

– In voting to support a merger, the Minneapolis Public Library Board would essentially be eliminating its own existence. The Library Board for the merged system would be similar to the current Hennepin County Board, with 10 members appointed by Hennepin County Board of Commissioners and serving in an advisory role.

– Hennepin County would replace the suburban-only levy used to support its system with a countywide levy that would support the operating expenses of the entire new system.

– Minneapolis would provide a declining amount of funding to the newly merged system each year for 10 years. The first year amount would be $7.8 million, which is equivalent to the library portion of the city's LGA and the projected 2008 operating deficit of the Minneapolis Public Library.

– Minneapolis and Hennepin County would each remain responsible for their current outstanding debts. Any future capital improvement projects would be paid for by the new joint system.

– A consolidation of the two systems is expected to initially create additional expenses rather than provide cost efficiencies. City and county officials have said they may seek one-time state funding to help offset the cost of a merger. Hadley said she and Hennepin County Library Director Amy Ryan are working on computing the initial costs of a merger and could not yet speculate on how much it might cost.

– The three governing bodies could vote on a merger as early as the end of March. If those bodies agree on a merger, the goal among elected officials is to get the Legislature to pass enabling legislation this session.

By the time the county, city and Library Board work out the remaining details, execution of the consolidation likely wouldn't occur until the end of 2008, officials said at the Feb. 15 CFLHC meeting.

This broad framework doesn't address a number of critical issues, such as what will happen to the three libraries currently closed in Minneapolis or how library employees represented by a total of nine different unions will be rolled into one system. It's also unclear whether the operating hours of Minneapolis libraries will be expanded to more closely match those of Hennepin County libraries, most of which are open more than eight hours a day, six days a week if a merger moves forward. City and county staff, attorneys, finance officers, union leaders and others would work out the remaining details.

Whom would a merger benefit?

Both systems could benefit from a merger. A stable, increased revenue source would provide the Minneapolis Public Library system with a solution to an increasingly dire financial situation. The city library system relies heavily on LGA, a funding source that took a hit with state cuts in 2003 and has yet to fully recover.

For its part, Hennepin County would gain ownership of a 15-library system that includes several recently renovated facilities and the new Central Library.

Duckor told fellow Library Board trustees at a Feb. 7 meeting that without a merger, she doesn't know what kind of a library system Minneapolis will be left with.

&#8220If this doesn't go forward, we don't have enough money for a 12-library system today,” Duckor said.

She told members of the CFLHC that both the city and county need to contribute equally to the new consolidated system so it's a true merger of both systems rather than one system bailing out another.

&#8220We don't want this always to feel like somebody bailed somebody out,” Duckor said.

Hennepin County Commissioner and CFLHC member Peter McLaughlin (4th District) said the county needs to ensure there are strong libraries in Minneapolis because if there aren't, it has a spillover effect on county libraries. For instance, he said, county libraries are already noticing increased usage on Mondays, when all libraries in Minneapolis are closed.

&#8220If Minneapolis continues to be diminished, we're going to have to cover for that anyway,” McLaughlin said.

The task now is to try to form a merger that is fair to both Minneapolis and suburban residents, McLaughlin said. &#8220We're trying to create a 21st century financing structure for our libraries,” McLaughlin said. &#8220Long term, I think you're going to see some efficiencies by having just a single system.”