Library candidates face paradox: shiny buildings, shorter hours

Share this:
October 10, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

How to keep community libraries open longer — or at all

The Minneapolis Public Library (MPL) Board of Trustees has its eyes on the future. That’s where they have an opportunity to revel in a bricks-and-mortar accomplishment … and perhaps drown in an acid bath of criticism.

Board members know that next May, the new Downtown Central Library opens. Accolades and smiles are likely to be found at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with beaming members of the City Council, the mayor and other dignitaries extolling the virtues of the Board.

Board members also know that in three years, the renovations currently underway at the North Regional and East Lake branches will be completed. That means that in 2008, the system’s buildings will all be finished — and MPL’s already strained operating budget will break.

One incumbent says without a cash infusion, MPL simply won’t have enough money to keep all the branches open; necessitating further controversial cuts in hours, or more likely, the shuttering of some of the system’s 15 community libraries.

The new Central Library’s opening is a certainty. Branch closings are a definite possibility. Both could be legacies for incumbents seeking reelection, and both dominate their discussions of their candidacies.

Open and shut

Right now, the system’s budget is balanced, but it’s being done with some smoke and mirrors: librarians and hours are being juggled among the branches while East Lake and Northeast are closed. MPL is currently able to offer the reduced hours the system has languished under for the two years since the state cut local government aid (LGA). But in 2008, even those reduced hours might be too expensive to maintain, incumbent Rod Krueger said.

“There aren’t enough dollars right now,” he said. “It basically comes down to: we need more funding. Or, we’re going to have to make the very difficult choice to close some community libraries. And that’s basically what we’re going to have to do.”

He said that Uptown’s Walker Library, because of its roof problems, might be considered again for closure, though he believes that Southeast, Webber Park (on the city’s Northwest side) and Roosevelt (also in Southeast) are more likely to be shuttered.

Said Krueger, “I think I take a realistic view that we can’t continue operating the library the way we currently are now. And I’m not going to make a campaign promise to people that I’m not going to close a library. I don’t want to close a library, but sometimes you have to make a tough decision.”

Challenger Julie Iverson, who lives in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood near the University of Minnesota, said she thinks the Board didn’t do enough to stave off the 2003 LGA cuts that resulted in shorter library hours across the city.

“I wish they would have more of a plan. That they’ve kind of been operating more ad hoc, facing crises as they come up, and that some sense of looking ahead or seeing what’s on the horizon, or being more proactive in decision-making might have ameliorated some of the crises, or would just be better for the community.”

Attorney Gary Thaden, a challenger from the Wedge, said he wouldn’t criticize the current Board.

“I think if I’m elected to the Board, my term is going to start in January and I’m going to move forward, and I’m not going to look backward about what happened in the past.”

Thaden offers no concrete solutions to MPL’s funding problems, but he said he would work with people running suburban libraries to lobby state officials for funding and that each branch should have its own citizen group for support and advocacy.

Friends at last

Thaden, Krueger and challenger Sheldon Mains all point to the efforts waged by neighbors near the Nokomis Library when it, like all other branches, was threatened with reduced hours.

Challenger Samantha Smart found it amusing that her rivals would mention Nokomis as an example to be followed. She formed Friends of Nokomis Library as soon as she heard that her neighborhood library’s hours would be cut to three days a week with no Saturday service.

“I got very upset,” she said. “Within a week or so, we had a core group of neighborhood residents who decided, no, we can’t do this. We’ve got to change their minds.

“We felt we had to raise our own money, which is exactly what we did. We exerted great pressure on our neighborhood organization. They came up with just over $21,000. And then we had, a little more than a year ago, a yard sale where we raised over $5,000. And then we had a chili dinner, and it was just really grassroots fund-raising.”

In the short-term, that fund-raising has worked. Saturday hours were restored at Nokomis. However, Smart said in the long term, Minneapolis needs to adopt the St. Paul model — a library-specific property tax — to pay for MPL needs.

A new tax could come on top of the city’s current five-year policy of increasing overall property taxes 8 percent annually, to pay off past debt and fund rising operating costs.

Incumbent Anita Duckor of Cedar-Isles-Dean said she thinks the St. Paul model needs to be looked at closely and possibly copied. However, she said other options need to be examined as well.

“There’s no one single silver bullet,” she said.

She wants to develop an endowment fund that would provide MPL steady, annual income. The current successful campaign for buildings could become one to pay for essential library programs such as the summer reading program.

Duckor, who runs her own business consulting firm, is the Library Board’s representative on the capital campaign, which has almost reached its $15 million goal.

Laurie Savran, a Linden Hills lawyer, is proud of the capital campaign, too. She said the money had been raised “against almost impossible odds.”

She’s not in favor of adopting the St. Paul model, however.

“I’ve heard a lot of ideas. I don’t think any of those would ever pan out,” she said. “I don’t think people at this time really know what will get the funding back, if

you’re realistic.”

Incumbent Virginia Holte is willing to consider asking voters for more money for libraries. “I really believe we will by then have come up with something. I think we may have to go back to the public again because they are certainly dissatisfied,” she said.

Lobbying issues

Savran said she favors strengthening ties to the city’s next mayor, despite her belief that the “library has been shortchanged by the Council and mayor, considering what a essential public institution we are and how we really provide services to people of all economic backgrounds.”

Such ties are important because the library system’s funding runs through the City Hall. “We really should be allocated a higher percentage [of LGA money] than we are from the city of Minneapolis,” Savran said.

The Seward neighborhood’s Mains, a technology consultant, said the Library Board has a poor track record of lobbying the mayor and Council.

When the LGA cuts were instituted, “they did no lobbying. They didn’t go in and argue for more funding, even though the Library Board has a bigger percentage of its budget as LGA,” Mains said.

Iverson said she’s not particularly enthusiastic about becoming a lobbyist if she wins a seat on the Library Board.

“I think there’s some lobbying to be done, but I would hate to think that my primary job as a Library Board member is to spend time in front of legislative organizations pleading the case for libraries. I would rather spend it talking to people in the community and stuff, and saying, ‘Make sure that you let your legislators know and your City Council know that this is a priority to you.’”

Challenger Eric Hinsdale agrees that political leaders have to be lobbied, and that a return of LGA money would be ideal, but he said that the Board hasn’t done enough planning for what he said is a very real possibility: that LGA won’t be restored.

In that case, he said, other measures must be taken, including relying more on libraries across the state for materials. That way, the Minneapolis system wouldn’t need to buy as many books, and people living outstate would soon realize that our library system’s shortfall affects them as well. Carleton College’s Technology Expert also said that MPL isn’t making good use of advanced technologies, including one that allows librarians to spend less time sorting books arriving from other branches.

Laura Waterman Wittstock, lives in Como and runs a nonprofit organization. She said when the City Council and mayor hash out their annual budgets, “the independent boards have been edged away from the table … but it is now incumbent on us, now that we have woken up, now that we understand, to get back at the table, to be at the table throughout the process to defend the library system as we try to work our way out of this dilemma that we’re in.”

Wittstock, who was appointed by Mayor R.T. Rybak, said she’s interested in “educating City Council, educating the mayor’s office” about the value of the library system to city residents.

Mains said the Board should be building a grassroots lobbying group that could persuade legislators and maybe even twist a few arms on behalf of the library. He likened his vision to what exists currently with the city’s parks: kids who are enrolled in parks programs have parents who raise their voices when something adversely affects their prodigy’s park plans.

“You try to cut a skating rink in a neighborhood park and everyone in the city hears about it.

“It will take time,” he said. “It’s not something that will happen immediately, which is why I think [the Board] should’ve started by now.”

Challenger Alan Hooker, a human resources officer who lives in Camden, said he prefers to look at lobbying as a form of marketing libraries to legislators, with a new, sharper focus on putting the bite on suburban legislators.

He said MPL data shows that 70,000 suburbanites use MPL “and it needs to be made clear to those legislators that our libraries are important to their constituents.”

Hooker also favors “new and creative voluntary revenue solutions,” such as creating Minnesota license plates dedicated to libraries (with the collected revenues spread around the state) and “an expansion of naming opportunities” at libraries.

“I’m sure not saying we slap up ‘Target’ or ‘Best Buy’ on the outside of any [library] building,” he added quickly, noting that he wants to solicit donations from philanthropists who would then have their names attached to libraries. He mentioned the Carnegie family as well as Minnesota’s Daytons as examples of those that should be approached.

Elect librarians?

Lisa Kjellander, a Hennipin County librarian who lives in Fulton, is reluctant to criticize the Board she seeks to join. She said her main goal is to make sure the Board has a librarian among its trustees.

“The reason for this is, librarians truly do have a kind of unique view of what we do. We don’t feel that there’s any wrong questions, bad questions; we don’t feel that censorship is the way to go.

“In a way, that’s a really hard concept for a lot of people to easily put into practice, especially if they haven’t been exposed to this. That’s kind of my biggest thing.”

She said library staff would also likely be more comfortable talking with a Board member who had worked in libraries.

Hinsdale, also a librarian, agrees that the Board could use an insider’s perspective.

“There’s a huge gap between what people perceive goes on at a library and how a library actually functions. If you don’t understand a little about the business, how are you going to make good decisions?

“I think that most of the people on the current Library Board don’t even understand how a library is organized.”

Wittstock isn’t a librarian, but she is on the Board of The Friends of the Minneapolis Library, where, she said, she’s working

with others on a plan to resuscitate MPL’s finances.

“We are putting together a plan. I can’t say that it’s anywhere close [to complete] yet,” she said with a laugh.

“If along the way we have to embarrass some people in public office about the way that the library has been neglected, then I think that the Friends and the friends of the Friends are up to that task. I think people have gotten to the point that they’re not going to take it any more.”