Library, county clash over funding new facilities

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In a recent letter addressed to the director of ImagineIF Libraries, the Flathead County commissioners said they have no intention of owning any library facilities as county property — a decision that may impact the county library system’s goals of launching a new library in Bigfork and eventually moving the Kalispell library to a new location.

The ImagineIF Library Foundation recently spent nearly $500,000 to purchase the Bethany Lutheran Church Arc Building in Bigfork as the facility for a new Bigfork ImagineIF library and has launched a capital campaign in order to raise money for the remodel of the space and other expenses.

The foundation had hoped to essentially gift the building itself to the county, completely paid for with the exception of a $40,000 to $50,000 annual increase in the county’s library budget for maintenance and other fees associated with the facility. Normally, a public library can only own property if it is in the name of a government entity, which is the preferred method of ownership by the library foundation because it allows for more flexible adjustment to future growth and other opportunities.

But ImagineIF Library Director Connie Behe said Montana Code Annotated also allows the Library Board of Trustees to acquire property in the name of the county without approval. She also said pursuing the this option, in which they bypass permission, may potentially lead to tension with the county and would contradict recent efforts made by library officials to build relationships with the commissioners and other county officials.

“The need for this library [in Bigfork] is so great and the horse is out of the barn and I think it would be a shame to let something so great be torpedoed by a lack of vision from the county,” Charlotte Housel, executive director of the ImagineIF Library Foundation, said during a library Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday.

The commissioners’ letter states the commissioners “do not wish to own any library facilities in the name of Flathead County and will not fund any such acquisitions or their associated costs.” In addition, the document announces they do not presently support putting any bond issue on the ballot for library facilities.

During a public meeting in May, Commissioner Randy Brodehl led a decision to remove the Bigfork, Kalispell and Columbia Falls libraries from the county’s capital improvement plan, a working document that is intended to be a loose blueprint for county capital expenditures over an extended period of time. Commissioners Phil Mitchell and Pam Holmquist also agreed to take the libraries out of the capital plan.

Commissioners have said in recent meetings that the library already receives sufficient public funds and that there “has to be a balance with the budget,” Holmquist stated.

Brodehl’s support to strike libraries from the capital plan was voiced after Mitchell elaborated on how he would never back the county taking ownership of a public library facility.

“It [the library] should be theirs in perpetuity,” Brodehl said.

A year ago, when the commissioners unanimously approved a $30.3 million capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2019 through 2023, land for a new library in Kalispell and construction of a new Bigfork library were among the big-ticket line capital projects in the plan. The 500-page document is a planning tool that identifies the future timing of capital needs, estimated capital costs and sources of funding.

A new ImagineIF library for Bigfork was slated at $1.5 million in 2020, while $1.5 million in 2021 was estimated for the land purchase needed for a new Kalispell ImagineIF library.

A capital expenditure, however, doesn’t have final approval unless it has been included in the overall fiscal year operational budget and adopted by the commissioners. That means only the capital projects included in the current year’s fiscal year 2019 budget were fully funded.

A facilities master plan completed in 2014 for the county library system called for the construction of new libraries not only in Bigfork, but also in Kalispell and Columbia Falls. All three libraries, the master plan noted, are considerably undersized, land-locked and lack parking.

The county currently provides $1.9 million to ImagineIF annually, which pays for operational costs, employee benefits and more, according to county records. And commissioners have insisted the allotment is sufficient and say they do not plan on providing the additional money necessary to run the Bigfork library, pointing to other budgetary concerns, such as maintenance of the county’s trail system.

However, ImagineIF Library Board Chairman Michael Morton said during a public meeting on Wednesday that the financial request from the library is minimal.

“We are so incremental in what we are asking for here,” Morton said. “I would refute the argument, but I think it’s something they [the commissioners] would probably refute back. In their minds they already have funded the libraries adequately.”

Behe maintained the commissioners’ decision goes against the grain of most public libraries that are operated with local, state and federal funds. Behe said about 86 percent of funding for most public libraries come from government sources, but noted ImagineIF Libraries currently receive less than that.

In addition, Behe said there are no private public libraries in Montana and there is no trend either in the state, or nationally, to move toward privatization.

“We aren’t sure that privatizing is something that we would even want,” Behe said. “It would no longer be a community-owned resource and that changes some of the library’s fundamental values.”

Despite obstacles with county funding, which library officials say they are hopeful to work through with the commissioners and others, capital campaign efforts to raise the remaining funds for the Bigfork Library are expected to continue.

Housel, who has spearheaded most of the campaign efforts, said she feels comfortable and prepared to continue fundraising because the “momentum from donors is starting to pick up.”

The Board of Trustees advised Housel and others to proceed with the campaign with total transparency, expressing the current county restraints to those interested in donating.

Housel said if worse comes to worse and they cannot find the means to fund the future Bigfork library, either under county ownership or other means, the money received during the campaign would be returned to donors.

“If we pull the plug we would sell the property and all the capital campaign accrued would be returned,” Housel said. “We would lose a lot that we have pushed for, which includes new donor relationships that are beneficial to this library and the foundation.”

Note: Corrections have been made to the above article. It was originally stated that the county provides $3.4 million annually to the libraries. However, operational and employee benefit costs amount to about $1.9 million in total. The article also stated the library foundation could acquire property in the name of the county without approval, but Montana Code Annotated states that the Library Board of Trustees are the ones that can do so, not the foundation.

Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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