Libraries look to control budgets

Mill levy vote won't happen in November

Advertisement

Caught in the waves of the county's financial crisis, the Moffat County Libraries Board of Trustees is looking to get control of its own budget.

Board members met Tuesday with community members and government officials to discuss the costs and benefits of seeking their own mill levy.

The consensus was that forming a political subdivision -- different from a special district in that the board is appointed rather than elected -- was worth investigating, but not for the November ballot.

To break from their dependence on the county's general fund, the library system would need a dedicated 3 to 4 mill levy. The lower end would sustain existing services while the top end would enhance them.

"My thinking is we're not going to go to the voters and ask them for status quo," said Donna Watkins, director of Moffat County Libraries. "I'd like to see this library open seven days a week."

The revenue generated from 4 mills -- about $1.1 million -- would put the library's budget at the level it was six years ago.

Moffat County appropriates a portion of its 60.975 mill to the library system. The library's portion was decreased from 2.053 mills to 1.5 mills in 2004, forcing the board to dig into its reserves for operating funds.

The threat of future cuts is spurring the library board into action.

"It's already held over our heads," board member Linda Booker said.

Fearing that continued lack of control, combined with a county push to form a political subdivision, is what prompted the discussion.

Donna Watkins, director of Moffat County Libraries, said county officials are encouraging the formation of a special district, feeling they could put the revenues from the library's existing mill back into the general fund to be spent for other county needs.

"They're as excited about getting rid of us as we are of getting rid of them," board member John Ponikvar said.

Preliminary figures indicate breaking free from county funding and forming a political subdivision would cost the library nearly $400,000 more than what its budget is.

That increase is attributed to higher insurance costs and the need to hire personnel to handle bookkeeping and payroll. The library also would have to hire a full-time maintenance position and pay for all employee benefits.

Expenditures for books and community programs also would be increased.

"The insurance cost changes significantly impact," library attorney Tim Stuver said. "When the political subdivision is established it's going to be a completely separate insurance entity."

Currently, the county covers a portion of all but the library's building insurance.

Control over board appointments also is something the current board is seeking, but it doesn't look like they'll get it.

The statute that allows libraries to form their own political subdivisions calls for the continued appointment of board members by the county commissioners.

"If total independence is the fundamental reason you want to explore this, I'm not sure we can get you there under the existing statute," Stuver told board members.

The board of trustees would be responsible for making recommendations to the county commissioners.

"I think the county would love to get rid of this library and the headaches that come with it, but that's not going to happen with this," Ponikvar said. "For us, we'd just like that financial freedom."

Continuing services is the main goal, board member Sharon Spaulding said.

"We just want to protect what we already have," she said.

The library has had to cut back on its hours and services.

Before moving forward, City Manager Jim Ferree recommended the library board talk to the large property taxpayers in the county -- the mines and the power plant -- to gauge their reaction to a potential property tax increase.

The biggest hurdle would be getting the public to accept the fact that the taxes they currently pay to fund the library would go into the county's general fund and that to continue funding the library would mean a tax increase, Ponikvar said.

He doesn't think residents have enough faith in commissioners to trust what those officials would do with the additional dollars or to trust any argument about whether those dollars are needed.

"We need Moffat County commissioners people can trust or this won't work," he said. "We need to be able to show the benefit to the county of keeping that money. After the election, maybe that will be easier."

Overall, board members felt there wasn't enough time to educate the public about the issue before this November's election.

They also felt that would give time for other issues to be resolved -- the county's budget as well as the hospital's expansion plans.

The proposal isn't dead. Library board members will meet later this month to discuss the issue further and begin a timeline.

"We need to keep this in the forefront of our thoughts and plan aggressively for it," Spaulding said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210 or at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.