Glacier County Library supporters turned out in full force for an informational meeting on the future of the library. Organized by the Glacier County Library Board, Friends of the Library and the Library Foundation, community members sent a clear message: They want and need the county library reopened. “It’s very heart warming to see you all here,” expressed Library Director Jamie Greco.
The meeting was held in the basement of the library in Cut Bank on Sept. 29 and was set up to allow social distancing of a maximum of 50 attendees. Organizers had to close the doors to the public and turn away several residents due to the limitation. Facemasks were required.
Tracy Cook, a consultant with the Montana State Library, was invited by the Library Board to explain one possible solution to funding the operation of the library. The library has been closed since March due to Glacier County’s financial situation.
Cook explained the steps to create a multi-jurisdictional service or library district. Taxpayers within the district would be assessed a specified amount to fund the library. The district could follow county, city or school district boundaries, depending on the area to be served by the library, she said.
The Glacier County Library Board would initiate the action to form such a district after determining the budget needed, how many mills would be required to fund that budget and the impact on the taxpayers. A coalition would then be formed to collect signatures. A minimum of 15 percent of the registered voters within the proposed district would need to sign the petition.
The petition showing taxpayer support for the district would then be presented to the Glacier County Commissioners.
It would then be up to the Commissioners to pass a resolution calling for an election to ask voters to form a library district.
“I encourage you to go for it,” said Cook. “You don’t have that much to lose and you may regain your library.”
Cook acknowledged, “It’s a tough sell given…the unique circumstances you find yourself in.”
In recent years, the Glacier County Library was funded by approximately seven county mills, or roughly $180,000, said Foundation member Pauline “Sissy” Nygaard. “Would that money go away?” she asked.
That decision would be up to the Commissioners, responded Cook.
Local resident and taxpayer Penne Swenson pointed to the lack of accountability of tax dollars by Glacier County officials and questioned what guarantee there would be that the new library district would actually receive the additional funds paid by taxpayers. Swenson pointed to the Browning School District’s battle with the county to obtain their funds.
“My concern is that we can go out and do this, but how do we get the funds?” asked Swenson
In two different elections recently, Glacier County residents defeated special mill levies to support the Glacier County EMS. Many voters cited their lack of confidence the additional taxes would go to the EMS.
The possibility of forming a “city only” library district was raised, but quickly dismissed due to the tax base of the City of Cut Bank not being high enough to feasibly support the budget needed for the library.
Greco estimated the cost of to operate the library at $200,000 to $250,000 per year. The budget supports library operations in Cut Bank, Browning and East Glacier. The latter is primarily operated by volunteers and requires little funding out of the budget, she added.
The FY 2020-21 library budget, however, was slashed to barebones in hopes to get the doors back open. Cuts included reducing hours and eliminating many services and programming traditionally provided by the library.
The operating budget approved by the Commissioners was $108,624, or 55 percent of last year’s budget. The Commissioners approved an additional $37,376 “interfund operating transfer out” line item to pay back the PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) fund for those years when the library’s expenditures exceeded revenue received. The final budget approved by the Commissioners was $146,000.
The revenue side of the library budget approved by the Commissioners, however, is listed at $194,534. County officials project the majority of the revenue will come from net and gross proceeds taxes ($127,622) with only $64,107 projected to come from property taxes.
The question was raised if the Blackfeet Tribe could be included in the funding of a multi-jurisdictional district, given the Browning and East Glacier branches of the county library are located on the Blackfeet Reservation. Cook said she would research if any other Montana Tribes participate in funding non-tribal libraries within reservation boundaries.
Cook pointed out that forming a library district, obtaining voter approval and then actually receiving the funds, may take up to two years.
Community members asked what can be done now to get the library reopened, at least partially. The decision, said organizers, is up to the Commissioners.
Residents expressed concern about the number of books that are “out there” and may be lost or damaged the longer the library is closed.
Greco stated the monthly number of “items” checked out at the Cut Bank branch averaged 2,000, while the number at Browning and East Glacier was approximately 200 per location. Browning’s library serves primarily as a “mini business center” for residents there, noted Greco, saying Internet, computer and fax use is very high.
“I don’t think they (commissioners) are aware how much the libraries are used,” said Greco.
Pam McLean said her preschool-age granddaughter, Morgan McLean, misses her trips to the library. Kasey Connors, the mother of three sons, said they want to know, “Where is Miss Jamie? Where is Miss Rose? Where is Austin,” referring to the library staff members.
Residents asked if Greco and her staff would be allowed to open temporarily so people could return the books and begin the process of disinfecting and checking them in.
Crystal Evans, a member of the Glacier County Library Board, told the group the Library has discussed this but there are several issues related to COVID-19 that currently prevent this.
No Glacier County officials attended the meeting, but all three Glacier County Commissioners were invited to attend, said Greco.
One member of the public asked, “How do concerned citizens educate the Commissioners about the importance of the library to the community and about how many people use and miss the library.”
One suggestion was asking library supporters to attending the commissioners’ meetings and commenting on the need to reopen the county library.
Kathy Campbell reminded those present this isn’t just a concern for Cut Bank residents but that many Browning residents attended earlier Commissioner meetings to express their desire to have keep the services of the Browning Library. “They want their library open. They are as fed up as we are.”
While the “path forward isn’t going to be easy,” Glacier County Library Board member Nick Hudak said he was “incredibly encouraged” by the support of community members for the library, especially when those present were asked to raise their hands if they would be willing to dedicate their time, energy and resources to the multi-jurisdictional district effort.
JoDean Rooney shared while she was taking care of her mother, the helpful employee at the Browning Library, Vananda Yazzie, helped her mother find her love of reading again. Using the interlibrary loan program, Yazzie found several large print Western novels for her mother since the regular size print books were too difficult for her to read. For Rooney, the library has served three generations of her family. “My children grew up in this library,” she added.
The Glacier County Library Board is expected to further discuss the multi-jurisdictional library district option at their next meeting. Greco said she will inform the community when that meeting is scheduled.