Legislators may merge libraries

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By Janet Robb

PERRY COUNTY - Now that Perry County's two library districts have decided against a voluntary merger, it's up to the state legislature to decide if the state's 238 districts should become 92 county ones.

As The News reported, Tell City-Perry County Public Library Director Larry Oathout and Cannelton Public Library Director Sally Walker discussed with each of their boards the possibility of voluntarily merging.

The discussion sparked debate on the pros and cons for each library. Cannelton would gain added services, extended hours, upgrades to materials and technology and the bookmobile would add a stop at Cannelton schools. Members of Tell City's board said it would be good to unite the county by having one district serving all citizens, but were wary about what it would mean for employees and whether the Cannelton branch would remain open.

At their Feb. 28 meeting, Cannelton's board members decided it was in their best interest to remain a separate library district. This action stopped any more discussion on a voluntary merger and now it is up to the state legislature whether they will follow recommendations from the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform.

If a consolidation plan is adopted by the legislature, Jim Corridan, associate director of outreach services at the state library, said they would do their part to make it a smooth transition. To do this, he said, the state library is offering grants to expand services for libraries that take in unserved members of the public. Another grant covers expenses to combine systems for districts that voluntarily merge. Right now, Corridan said, about 395,000 Hoosiers have no library service.

"The problem isn't too many libraries," he continued, "it's that there are too many library districts." For example, the goal would be to get the 238 bookkeepers, one for each district, down to 92, one for each county. "No one has ever proposed or suggested closing libraries," he said, adding that it would probably be a local decision if actual buildings were closed.

According to the commission's report published last year, districts should merge to "provide high-caliber services to every Hoosier at a lower cost and improve fiscal accountability."

In recommendations 18 to 20, the commission stated it would like to "reorganize library systems by county and provide permanent library service for all citizens; require that the budgets and bonds of library and all other special districts be approved by the fiscal body of the municipal or county government containing the greatest proportion of assessed value in the unit seeking approval and strengthen the current joint-purchasing infrastructure for libraries."

The commission states that in 38 counties 395,000 citizens do not have access to library service; 29 counties have areas that are underserved by libraries and 24 libraries employ about twice as many staff per 10,000 population than the national average. Almost three-fifths of districts serve populations of less than 10,000 which means less than 9 percent of the population is served by small districts. Also in the report 15 districts that serve populations of 5,050 or less were cited for failing to meet minimal state standards in 2006.

"By reducing the number of districts, we can address current unserved and underserved areas and achieve additional economies of scale within administrative and purchasing expenditures," the commission writes. "... We further recommend the establishment of grant funding to offset the significant technology costs that may accrue in converting and merging current systems."

The reasoning behind the commission's recommendation to have budget and bonds approved by fiscal bodies of the municipal or county government is so accountability is in the hands of elected officials instead of appointed ones. "Fiscal restraint may work best in the hands of existing city and county councils that already are known to the public," the report continues.

However, Corridan said, there's nothing to be done until legislation is passed and library districts are forced to merge.