Second committee recommends consolidation of library systems

A plan to merge the Hennepin County and Minneapolis library systems gained more traction after a committee created by the Minneapolis Public Library Board and city officials recommended a consolidation of the two systems.

The Feb. 27 recommendation by the Library Advisory Committee (LAC) backed the conclusion reached by the Committee on the Future of Libraries in Hennepin County (CFLHC), a similar committee commissioned by Minneapolis and Hennepin County officials to examine a possible merger. Yet while the CFLHC's focus was largely on examining the feasibility of a consolidation, the LAC looked at a variety of options for achieving financial solvency for the Minneapolis Public Library (MPL), including raising local property taxes and making the system a city department.

Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), a member of the LAC, said the committee determined that a consolidation was the only measure that would get at the root of MPL's financial problems.

&#8220The future of the Minneapolis Public Library is rather bleak if we don't find alternative ways to get them resources,” Hodges said. &#8220This is a good thing for libraries.”

The proposed consolidation of the two library systems would create a unified organization that would become a Hennepin County department governed by the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. The new system would be funded by a countywide property tax.

&#8220By connecting MPL with the larger and growing county tax base, and by spreading the financial support of the Central Library appropriately across a larger portion of its service area, the future of library services in Minneapolis shifts from certain decline to the prospect of restored hours, locations and services over time,” stated the report issued by the LAC.

There are three major financial components the city would need to commit to under the consolidation plan outlined by the CFLHC: providing the new system with a declining amount of funding each year for 10 years, with the first year's amount equivalent to the $6.8 million of MPL's share in local government aid (LGA) plus an additional $1 million to cover the system's expected operating deficit; finishing the capital investment program already started in the city's library system; and agreeing that for the first three years, the city will fund any increased hours or service levels in its library system. That would include providing funding for reopening three libraries - Roosevelt, Southeast and Webber Park - that the Library Board voted last year to close indefinitely in an attempt to work within its ailing budget.

Hodges said she supports the concept of a merger but wants more information about what is expected of the city in funding increased hours and service levels so officials know what is expected as they go forward. Despite those concerns, Hodges said city officials are committed to reopening the three libraries.

&#8220The tenor here at the city is about how to open those three libraries, not whether to open those three libraries,” Hodges said.

Mayor R.T. Rybak also pledged at a Feb. 28 Library Board meeting to find the funds to reopen the three libraries at part-time hours.

&#8220City and library staff are working aggressively to identify resources to reopen the three closed libraries at part-time hours,” Rybak said in a news release.

Hodges said she knows some residents are upset that the city is committing to reopening the three closed libraries now when late last year it refused to provide ongoing funding to keep them open.

&#8220What we said in December is there is no long-term [financial] plan for the Minneapolis Public Library, and we don't want to give ongoing money to a system with no long-term plan,” Hodges said.

A consolidation would give the library system a stable, long-term financial plan the city is willing to provide funding for, she said.

The Library Board's Intergovernmental Relations Committee voted to move forward with a consolidation at its Feb. 28 meeting. The full board was scheduled to vote on a merger at its March 7 meeting, and the City Council was scheduled to vote on a consolidation at its March 9 meeting, with both votes occurring after this issue of the Southwest Journal went to press. The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to vote on the consolidation its March 13 meeting.

Discussions about a merger are on a fast track driven by committee deadlines at the Minnesota Legislature. If the Library Board, Minneapolis City Council and Hennepin County Board of Commissioners all approve a merger, the Legislature would still need to pass enabling legislation amending the city charter and allowing for countywide taxing authority to support the newly merged library system. Officials from all three entities want that legislation passed in the remaining months of this year's legislative session.