By VICKI URBANIK
In its report for reforming local government, a state commission applauds the
work of public libraries, saying that whether large or small, Indiana
libraries provide “excellent” service.
The Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform’s report notes that Indiana
libraries ranked second overall in the National Center for Education
Statistics’ national benchmarks on services, collection, revenue and
With such a record, one may think that Indiana’s library system isn’t broken
and doesn’t need fixing. But the commission thinks otherwise, recommending
that Indiana’s 239 library districts consolidate into 92 single county
districts or even multi-county districts.
If carried out, the recommendation would bring an end to the Westchester
Public Library system, which would be melded in with the county library
system and controlled largely by the county council and a new county
The commission’s report said the library consolidation would help expand
library services to all areas of the state. Its report states: “Indiana has
too many library districts and administrators, but Indiana does not have too
many libraries. We recommend maintaining the current mix of geographically
dispersed facilities to allow districts to serve local populations and
But would consolidation of libraries guarantee library services for, say,
residents of Adams or Clay counties, two counties with limited library
Ironically, no, said Westchester Public Library Director Phil Baugher.
“They would be taxed for a library,” he said of the residents in the new
countywide library system. But in order to be guaranteed library services, he
said, lawmakers “would have to mandate library services.”
Baugher said he’s disturbed that the Indiana Commission on Local Government
Reform tied the issue of library consolidation with the goal of expanding
library services to unserved areas. He said he and other WPL supporters
believe that the two issues are separate.
If, Baugher said, the true goal is to expand library services, the state
could require, or encourage, communities to contract with the larger library
systems in their area, or use a township by township approach and have
township trustees negotiate with a library provider.
“Why not address the unserved areas?” he said.
The report states that an estimated 395,000 Indiana residents in 38 counties
do not have access to library services, and that 29 counties have areas that
are “underserved” by contractual library services. The report also states
that Indiana libraries employ almost twice as many staff per 10,000 people
than the national average.
“By reducing the number of (library) districts, we can address current
unserved and underserved areas and achieve additional economies of scale
within administrative and purchasing expenditures,” the report states.
The recommendation for consolidating small library systems like WPL comes
despite ample public support for smaller libraries, judging by all the
comments posted on the commission’s webpage in support of keeping local
“I think that’s pretty obvious that they ignored the public’s comments,”
Baugher said, speculating if the report was predetermined even before the
public input was received. “To me, it shows they weren’t responsive to
The report overall focuses largely on consolidation of government services.
But Baugher said bigger isn’t always better and often can be more expensive.
He cited as one example the new $100 million Marion County public library
that came in $50 million over budget.
In addition to consolidation of libraries, the report recommends that the
taxing unit with the largest assessed value would be given the authority to
approve the library system’s budget and bond issues. That could mean that
this responsibility would fall to the Porter County Council; the report also
calls for having a new county executive -- an elected post that would replace
the three county commissioners --- oversee the new consolidated library.
Baugher said that with the move toward capping property taxes, “it’s very
easy to predict what would happen.”
If the county government was in danger of hitting its property tax cap, it
could offset that budget loss by cutting the library budget.
“It could be devastating to the libraries,” he said.
WPL supporters have waged a visible campaign aimed at drumming up public
support for keeping WPL a local library system independent of the Porter
County library system. Baugher said WPL will continue to make its position
known to state legislators.
He said he finds it disturbing that local government, including libraries,
seem to be getting blamed for property tax problems over which they have no
control. He said local government has been forced to spend millions of
dollars in interest due to the lack of property tax revenues, even though
they had nothing to do with the late tax bills.
Baugher said he fears what might happen in the upcoming session of the
Indiana Legislature, since state legislators are under so much pressure to
pass tax reform legislation and that they might “look at libraries as