Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Reform report takes aim at state's 'excellent' library system

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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 expenditures.

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 executive.

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 needs.”

But would consolidation of libraries guarantee library services for, say, residents of Adams or Clay counties, two counties with limited library service?

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 library systems.

“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 public.”

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 scapegoats.”

 

Posted 12/12/2007

 

 

 

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