Leaving it up to the people

L’ANSE – When Baraga County voters go to the polls in November, they’ll consider a new half-mill tax to support the L’Anse Area School/Public Library, the county’s only public library. The library is open to the public, but doubles as the school library and has long been paid for primarily by the school district.

On Monday, the Baraga County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution placing the millage on the ballot. Commissioner Mike Koskinen noted that it would be up to the Library Advisory Board and Friends of the Library to pitch the millage to the public, and that the county wouldn’t be incurring any liability.

“There’s no responsibility, otherwise we probably couldn’t be entering into it,” he said after the meeting. He acknowledged the importance of maintaining a public library, but also noted that “any kind of (tax) increase in this day and age is a battle.”

L’Anse Area Schools Superintendent Carrie Meyer, who doubles as the library director, requested the millage from the board, with support from Suzanne Dees, director of the Superiorland Library Cooperative.

Meyer noted that state aid to public libraries has declined 41 percent since 2001, and fine revenue at the library fell 30 percent from 2008 to 2013, leaving the school district covering about 75 percent of the library’s costs, even though nearly 8,000 members of the public are known to have used the library’s computers for internet access in 2013, along with other services.

“Our school ends up funding the library through our general fund budget,” she said, “Our school is supplementing about $80,000 of cost toward that library.”

With the district experiencing its own budget crunch, it can’t afford that any longer, she said, adding, “We’re trying to do what we can to not have the public library closed.”

The half-mill tax, she said, would bring in an estimated $112,000, enough to continue public operations and possibly hire a part-time director.

Currently, the library is open Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. During the school year it was open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Meyer said the library operates with just one librarian present, which limits programming that can be offered.

Dees, an expert in the legalities of library funding, said there are currently 12 school/public libraries throughout the U.P., and that three have successfully gone through similar millage votes to maintain operations.

“Munising, Tahquamenon, and Manistique have used this as a solution, and it’s been very successful,” she said.

Commissioner Bill Rolof said after the meeting that he felt a public library is important to the community, but also that “a lot of people don’t know it’s a public library.”

“We get lots of people, but we would like to advertise that it’s public, so that more people can come and use it,” Meyer said in her presentation, adding that library supporters were already making plans to convince voters that the library was a good investment.

“The Library Advisory Board and the Friends of the Library are on board to campaign for the millage,” she said.

In other business, the board heard a request from Donna Moilanen, coordinator of the Tri-County Community Corrections Advisory Board, for $5,500 to cover 34 percent of a $16,000 deficit in the inmate work crew budget, matching the percentage of its work the crew did in Baraga County.

Moilanen said the $16,000 shortfall was due to state budget cuts over the past several years that have slowly depleted funds, and that she would also be seeking help from Houghton County. Most of the work crew budget, she noted, went to pay the salary and benefits of the work crew supervisor.

The commissioners chose to table the request for further consideration.