Look for Huntington County to be a battleground in upcoming consolidation battles.
How is it possible, with a countywide school district already in place?
Because taxpayers in Huntington County support one school district, but four public library districts.
That will change if recommendations of the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform – Kernan-Shepard, for short – are approved. But Indiana librarians and trustees, whose understated political profile belies their political savvy, have been working determinedly to develop an alternative to Kernan-Shepard’s one-size-fits-all oversimplification.
And they’ve done it mindful of the commission’s and Gov. Mitch Daniels’ goal of providing universal, cost-effective service.
Their plan could result in some of the current 239 districts merging into a countywide district or even a consolidation incorporating several counties. It could also allow them to continue in one of four other configurations as alliances or federations.
That’s not exactly what the government-reform commission had in mind. But with some refinement, the proposal could be a more pragmatic approach to an issue every bit as thorny as school district consolidation.
In northeast Indiana, only Allen, LaGrange and Wells counties have countywide library districts. The other counties have an assortment of city, town and township library systems. Many straddle township lines; some even straddle county lines.
Hoosiers who live outside of a library district have the option of paying for a subscription for library services; $70 a year for Allen County Public Library, for example. Those who live within a library district can also buy a Public Library Access Card for $30 a year to use any public library in the state.
Mergers and consolidations have occurred even without a legislative push; the Decatur and Geneva libraries consolidated last year to form the Adams Public Library System. Rose Bryan, the branch manager for the Geneva Library, said the merger allows her to spend less time on administrative duties and more on programming for the library, which has seen its number of visitors double from about 450 patrons a month to 900 a month.
Bryan said the consolidation was a financial necessity for her library, for which she is the only full-time employee.
We could have kept the doors open, but we couldn’t have provided new materials, she said. The consolidation has opened us up to all kinds of possibilities.
When the government-reform commission headed by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard released its report in December 2007, countywide library districts were among the recommendations. That didn’t come as a surprise to longtime library officials, many of whom have witnessed consolidation drives in their own communities, for better or worse.
To its credit, the Indiana Library Federation saw in the recommendation an opportunity instead of a threat. It put together the Indiana Public Library Coalition to research consolidation, as well as ways to make library service available to all Indiana residents and to ensure that all public libraries meet modern operating standards.
Cate Birdseye, director of the Garrett Public Library, was among the librarians recruited to participate. She’s been at the DeKalb County district for about 10 years, but she spent the 10 years before that at Allen County Public Library. So she’s as familiar with a large, countywide system as with a small community district.
There are advantages to both, Birdseye said.
I do believe there is a difference between a branch and the small-town library, she said. The authority comes from the community. My board president gets his hair cut, and the local barber tells him what he should be doing (with the library). I go to the grocery store, and people there are telling me what they want.
The coalition’s plan would allow communities to configure library districts as they see fit, she said, but planning for those systems would happen at the countywide level that the Kernan-Shepard plan suggested. It would also provide the mechanism for creating statewide standards to ensure all Hoosiers have access to the services they need.
Sen. Beverly Gard, a Greenfield Republican and trustee for the Hancock County Public Library, is carrying Senate Bill 348 for the Indiana Library Federation. A veteran lawmaker who has earned great respect from her colleagues, her involvement will enhance its chances for success.
We have some issues to work through here, Gard said. I don’t want the bill to encourage multiple districts if a single district would prove more efficient, but in some cases you have well-established districts that serve their constituents very well and very cost-efficiently. I don’t see anything to be gained by making them consolidate.
Gard said she hopes the legislation advances because it’s important for every resident to be part of a library district.
I look at library services as an extension of our education system, she said. They can serve everyone from birth to death.
Gard also has been involved with libraries long enough to know that efforts to extend service have sometimes met opposition from Hoosiers who don’t want library service and, more important, don’t want to pay for it through property taxes.
Last year’s tax restructuring relieves some of the burden on property taxes, but Gard also is hopeful that the countywide planning committees might come up with innovative ways to deliver library services – collaborative agreements with school districts, for example. They might also come up with some new ways to pay for service, as Gard’s library district did with county economic development income tax revenues.
This has worked extremely well in Hancock County, she said. I intend to propose this as an incentive for counties to go with one library district – to put that carrot in there as this moves forward.
Even as the bill’s author, Gard admits that the five service models proposed by the library officials might be too many. And five is a long way from the single service model the governor supports.
A former state budget director, Marilyn Schultz, is executive director of Mysmartgov.org, the group established with business and labor support to implement Kernan-Shepard recommendations. She said she is encouraged by the library officials’ understanding of the issue and their efforts to respond.
But Schultz said that the coalition has a preponderance of representatives from small districts and that per-capita library costs for those districts are about 25 percent higher than those for countywide systems.
Still, the countywide planning approach is one the Kernan-Shepard commission endorses and one she believes will inevitably point to countywide service delivery. Schultz is also pleased with the library coalition’s interest in making service available to everyone.
Working out the differences in those approaches will be the primary stumbling block for SB 348.
The coalition’s plan, however, addresses some realities that observers, including members of the Kernan-Shepard commission, might not recognize.
Most important is that mandating countywide library service won’t automatically create 92 efficient and effective library districts. Birdseye points out that efficient and effective are not one and the same. A library can cut costs by cutting hours, she said, but constituents might be denied the service they need.
The library proposal also opens the door for creating regional or multicounty districts, an efficiency that the Kernan-Shepard proposal would discourage.
And while everyone involved insists that libraries won’t be closed as a result of the consolidation plan, some rural residents not currently served will most likely insist that if they are taxed for library service, they deserve to have one closer to home. That could result in demands for new libraries or library relocations and expansions.
Birdseye makes another good point: Libraries have responded exceedingly well to astonishing technological and social demands in recent years. While some have tried to write them off as dusty, outdated institutions, they’ve evolved into vital resources for computer access, research, networking and community interaction.
People see librarians as these staid little Marian the Librarian types, Birdseye said. That’s not the case at all.
She’s right. And lawmakers and Kernan-Shepard proponents would be wise to include library officials in their reform efforts instead of discounting them as resistant to change and protective of their turf. After all, who is more plugged in to information than the people who make it available to us all?