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  Thursday January 29th, 2015    

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City cuts library funding (09/03/2014)
By Chris Rogers

     Photo by Chris Rogers

. Youth Services Librarian Lezlea Dahlke sorted inter-library loan books at the Winona Public Library. The Winona City Council members debated whether the library has enough funding for new books last week.

Winona punches below its weight when it comes to library funding. That was the message from Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl at a City Council budget review meeting last week. City funding for new books and materials at the Winona Public Library (WPL) will drop considerably in the proposed 2015 budget, and city leaders plan to spend a large portion of a memorial fund to make up for the drop in regular funding.

Before the Great Recession, the city spent over $100,000 each year on new books and other library materials, but in 2010, as state aid to cities was falling and city leaders were making various budget cuts, spending on new books was cut to zero, Ubl told the council. State aid has rebounded. Library allocations have not. This year, the city budgeted $43,700. Next year, the city will contribute $17,000 for new books.

City spending overall and the local tax levy are slated to rise significantly next year, with much of the funding going to infrastructure, buildings, and equipment.

Not counting Rochester, the Winona Public Library (WPL) has the largest service area population in the regional public library cooperative Southeastern Libraries Cooperating (SELCO). The 51,000 people who live in the WPL service area include numerous rural residents of Winona County.

However, this year the WPL's budget for print materials ranked seventh in SELCO. Under the proposed 2015 library budget for print materials, the WPL would be second to last.

"If we go to what's proposed in the 2015 budget, that drops us behind Pine Island and Wabasha," Ubl said. Pine Island and Wabasha serve populations of 6,400 and 4,700, respectively. Winona library collection spending will still be ahead of the much smaller St. Charles library, but it would be a far cry from spending in Owatonna, Austin, Red Wing, Faribault, Northfield, and Albert Lea, which spend $65,000 to $138,700 buying new books and materials each year and serve populations between 20,700 and 36,700.

"That is an area we are continually trying to bring back to that $100,000 level," Ubl said of funding for new materials. Increasing the budget that much in a single year would be unrealistic, he said, but added that he hopes funding could be gradually increased.

"We intend to take money from a memorial fund to make up for that," City Manager Judy Bodway told the council, referring to the 2015 funding cut. She explained that the city plans to spend $42,000 of private donations to the library that are currently in a memorial fund with a balance of over $200,000 to bolster funding for new books next year.

Responding to a question by council member Paul Double, Finance Director Mary Burrichter explained that under the bylaws of the memorial fund, the city can use both the corpus and the interest of the fund. The city could spend that fund down to zero, she explained.

"We can't dip into the memorial fund [like that] for the next several years; the fund would be depleted," Ubl said.

"On the surface of it, I don't think we're funding this library as well as we should, both in terms of the materials and the staffing. I think that this is a disturbing set of charts," council member Pam Eyden said, referring to charts on Winona's ranking among SELCO members. Mayor Mark Peterson agreed, saying, "The trend of where we're going with our print collection is disturbing."

"We are university town," council member Allyn Thurley observed. Winonans have access to large collections at university libraries, and that makes us different from most of the other SELCO libraries, he said. Thurley continued, noting that the city is spending $177,000 to waterproof areas of the library. "That all balances into the kinds of needs that are out there," he said of the city funding for the library in 2015. "If you don't have a building that is out there, you don't have a need to have books there."

The waterproofing project is planned to seal parts of the library's basement walls and foundation. One section leaked last year, causing mold to grow in a break room. Staff members say other sections are likely leaking, too.

Council member George Borzyskowski said the rise of new media forms such as ebooks would change the library's funding needs going forward. Ubl responded, "A monumental shift from print to digital— that could certainly be possible, but I don't think the cost of those services is going to go down." That sort of shift probably is not going to happen anytime soon, but either way the city will still need to pay for digital media, he said.

Responding to a question from council member Gerry Krage, Ubl acknowledged that other cities in SELCO have library layouts that require fewer staff. The WPL has three customer service desks to staff; the Austin library has a single desk. The layout of the WPL requires some additional staffing costs but offers other benefits, Ubl said.

Krage suggested that in the future the city should set a goal for how much it wants to spend and gradually increase funding to meet that goal.

The council voted unanimously to tentatively approve the budget and did not change library funding levels in 2015. 


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