Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Library merger called expensive, anti-community, big government

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Local residents and public officials urged the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform to be wary of recommending sweeping changes without first understanding their immediate impact and long-term consequences.

Especially when it comes to libraries, which were well represented among the approximately 200 persons attending the two-hour listening session hosted by commission staff Monday in Gary.

Among them were six members of the local Westchester Public Library Board, WPL library director Phil Baugher, assistant director Jane Walsh-Brown and WPL attorney Terry Hiestand. The Library Board has been vocal in its opposition to possible mandatory consolidation of WPL, a township-based library service, with the Porter County Library System.

But according to Porter County library director Jim Cline, that’s something his Library Board isn’t anxious to do either. “We’ve discussed it and I can safely say the consensus is it would be more expenses associated with (consolidation) than savings. It would take decades to recover what you’d save.”

Saving Hoosier taxpayers money by operating government more efficiently and cost-effectively is a focus of the Reform Commission, which plans to make recommendations to Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana General Assembly.

While some believe the Daniels’-appointed commission was formed to support his legislative goals, member John Stafford of Fort Wayne was present Monday and said no agreement on recommendations has been reached.

“No we haven’t. If we have, I haven’t been clued in. We’re at the beginning point in the process,” said Stafford.

“There is no such thing as a perfect solution,” he stated. Judgement calls will have to be made but citizens shouldn’t underestimate the influence of having their voice heard as part of the commission’s process. Public comment is open through Oct. 31. The final recommendations are due by Dec. 31.

“If anything worries me it’s we’re close to having to make decisions and haven’t,” said Stafford, the director of the Community Research Institute at Indiana University/Purdue University Fort Wayne who’s also served 20 years in various government posts.

Previous legislative attempts to abolish or modify township government have been made. Stafford said right now, “Everything’s on the table.”

That worries Mike Schultz, LaPorte County’s Center Township assessor. “It’s township government on the chopping block first,” he predicted.

The audience was divided into about 20 small-discussion groups. Schultz was in one with WPL Library Board president Karen Nash and member Sharon Robbins. Schultz said with the General Assembly going into a short session from January to March, restructuring government is too big an undertaking to rush.

“My biggest fear is they’ll do something just to get it done,” said Schultz. Agreed Nash, “We have to make sure we’re not putting fingers in the dike when this is all over.” Schultz said because “everybody has to be a player in the fix,” a statewide ballot referendum may be needed first.

Dr. Clarence Boone of Gary, a former Indiana University trustee, reminded that some of the recommendations proposed may require amending the Indiana state Constitution by public vote. Tim Mills-Groninger of Whiting supported reviewing the implications of change before enacting it.

Mills-Groninger strongly challenged the assumption that consolidation of government bodies and institutions such as libraries and schools will save money or improve quality of life.

During public comment later, many speakers stopped short of endorsing wholesale consolidations in favor of encouraging greater cooperation and compatibility between levels of government; standardizing administrative procedures and processes in the areas of human resources, accounting and purchasing; streamlining and synchronizing delivery of services; and increased accountability from and leadership by government officials.

The clear message: no one-size-fits-all approach will suit everyone.

Nash said WPL already fits the needs of the community it serves. “Why do we want to touch what works?” Under a consolidation scenario, Robbins said, “We’re very concerned about losing many of the things we do.”

Patron Melissa McLaughlin of Porter came Monday to support WPL. “I use our local library and love its sense of community. My little boy and I go to the library at least twice a week. We look forward to it. I can’t imagine going any place else for learning.”

Rick Kieft of LaPorte said the bigger you make government, the less representation you have.

Cline said although the Porter County Library Board hasn’t taken a public position on a possible WPL consolidation, the question has arisen how much of a voice patrons in the current WPL service territory would have if that occurred. Darla Block of Jackson Township is the only Duneland-area resident on the seven-member county Library Board.

Cline noted many other things would need to be resolved, including what tax rate would be used to finance a consolidated library system and how services would be provided. “To consolidate and lose services would be a real detriment.”

Nat McKnight of Gary said his discussion group agreed that among all units of government, libraries do a pretty good job and the ones that are shouldn’t be penalized.

Other speakers said the value to citizens of a government unit’s independence, identity and local control shouldn’t be discounted, while some said a closer look at schools is warranted. Public safety and access to public transportation generally were identified as priorities.

Getting specific, Schultz called for bucking the newspaper lobby and eliminating the County Commissioners’ need to advertise their claims to be paid. He said the role of townships may need to be redefined, and spoke of regional fire districts replacing township fire departments if insurance companies don’t penalize property owners because of the change.

WPL’s Baugher said he felt libraries took a step in getting their message out Monday, yet the Library Board isn’t taking any chances.

Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Library Service Center, 100 W. Indiana Ave. in downtown Chesterton, WPL is hosting a local forum to report on the consolidation issue and to receive comments from the community regarding it. The public is encouraged to attend.


Posted 10/9/2007




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