Back to the books: Board wants more options on adding hours at libraries

The Washington County Board of Commissioners generally supports reopening most Washington County Library branches on Monday.

But WCL and county officials were asked Tuesday to find ways to reopen a small WCL branch not included in the original proposal and if changing existing branch hours could help branches reopen Mondays and save the county money.

Those directions came during a lengthy commission budget workshop with the WCL, and Departments of Public Works and Property Records and Taxpayer Services.

WCL Executive Director Patricia Conley reviewed the proposal to reopen the WCL’s five largest branches during her presentation of the 2013 WCL budget of more than $6.389 million. The majority of the WCL budget comes from a nearly $6 million tax levy. The remainder, $447,400 comes from state funds, library card sales fees and recaptured revenues.

The library system’s biggest expenditure it slightly more than $4 million in wages and benefits, followed by more than $1.5 million operation costs, $735,600 buying library materials and $45,000 in capital costs.

But most of the library budget conversation focused on Conley’s proposal to restore Monday hours at the WCL Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Forest Lake, Oakdale and Mahtomedi branches, while keeping Lakeland’s branch closed Mondays. All branches would remain closed Sundays.

“People are our primary commodity,” she said. “The major initiative we’re going to ask you for is to restore hours.”

Conley reminded commissioners that the WCL cut branch hours in January in response to the loss of more than $250,000 from its levy when Lake Elmo city officials pulled out of the county system to start a city-run library.

“When we reduced (the levy), we had to look at one big day. That’s why we chose Monday,” she said.

Conley said the new proposal opens some WCL branches from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays. She added that the proposal is simple to implement, acceptable to the public and elected officials and affordable to operate.

“We want this to be simple to implement,” she said. “We don’t want the public to ask, ‘When is the library open?’ We want it to be acceptable to you and the public.”

Conley said branch opening and closing times were selected based on public feedback and meeting room use.

“We open at 9:30 and we found that extremely popular with young families and older folks,” she said.

Commissioners expressed support for adding Monday hours, but District 3 Commissioner Gary Kriesel wants the WCL Valley branch open on Monday. Conley’s plan calls for Valley to remain closed Sunday and Monday.

“I think it’s important for the Valley branch to be open Monday. It does serve five communities,” he said.

District 4 Commissioner Autumn Lehrke said her concern about adding Monday hours at the libraries was the estimated $260,000 cost. She suggests library officials consider shaving hours off other days and use that time on Monday.

“I have some concerns about postponing technology upgrades for a short-term fix,” she said.

However, other commissioners did not view Conley’s Monday reopening proposal as a quick fix.

“There’s something to be said for consistency in hours,” said District 2 Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek.

“We have a growing system and we have issues because we are a growing system,” added Board Chairman Dennis Hegberg.

County Administrator Molly O’Rourke said staff would look at the proposed WCL budget with an eye at reopening Valley branch Mondays and if adjusting hours other days could help reopen branches on Monday.

“If you give us some policy direction, we’ll crunch the numbers in the back room and come back to you with the information,” she said. “Commissioners, we’ll come back to you with a couple of options. But a half-hour on either end will not generate enough savings to pay for opening Monday.”

Kriesel said citizens have been clear about what they want from the county’s libraries.

“I have heard them loud and clear, the citizens want library services,” he said.