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Committee Calls for Whitefish Library to Break Ties with County

By Beacon Staff

A library committee in Whitefish is calling on the city council to break ties with the Flathead County Library System and revert back to a city-operated facility.

Delivering a large report to the Whitefish City Council earlier this month, the Ad Hoc Whitefish Library Community Committee outlined nine categories of concern regarding the current interlocal agreement with the county.

These issues include worries about the quality of service to the Whitefish community; dictating to the Whitefish community instead of listening to it; micromanagement of the facility, programs and staff; philosophical differences within the library system; inequities in library services, materials and lack of staff training; discarding irreplaceable materials; top-heavy county library administration; lack of transparency and accountability; and the unacceptable treatment of Whitefish employees.

The committee – made up of four former FCLS Board of Trustees members, a former FCLS Board subcommittee member and other Whitefish residents – undertook this mission after receiving permission from the council last fall.

The group offered five alternatives for the council to consider for the future of the library, including keeping the status quo, renegotiating the interlocal agreement, reverting back to a city library, forming a library district or combining with the school library.

Its final recommendation was to revert back to a city library, a decision that committee member Michael Collins called the “most appropriate and flexible” for the city.

This option could also put the library under the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Collins said in an interview last week.

“There is a difference in philosophy and how we’d like our library to be run,” said committee member Anne Moran. “The community has a very deep identification and association with the Whitefish library.”

The Whitefish branch joined the county system in 1976. The city council can terminate the interlocal agreement by citing cause or without citing cause by giving a year’s notice.

Flathead County Library Board Trustee Connie Leistiko said the board does not have an official position on the committee’s report because it has not met as a group since the report was released.

Leistiko did say she personally has reservations about whether there’s any cause to break the interlocal agreement.

Collins said breaking off from the county system would not cost the City of Whitefish any more money than it already pays. The committee report states that Whitefish has made an official request to the state attorney general about whether the city can keep the library taxes collected in the city’s boundaries.

Though it has not received an official reply, “the (c)ommittee has already gotten a verbal opinion from the AG’s office that this interpretation is accurate” and the committee recommends terminating the interlocal agreement as soon as possible, the report states.

The committee also created a potential library budget for the next two years. For 2011, there would be $119,500 in the library fund from property taxes. The city would contribute more than $33,000 from its general fund and the Whitefish Library Association would make a $15,000 contribution for five years if the library were independent.

The report accounted for $114,863 in personnel expenses and $49,750 in materials and service expenses. This could lead to a positive ending balance of more $3,000 to spend on buying materials, the report said.

For 2012, the committee predicts an increase in property taxes would leave a positive balance of more than $3,800.

But splitting from the system would also mean having to negotiate which materials belong to the county and which would remain in the city. Whitefish owns and maintains the library building ,while the FCLS provides staffing, oversight and materials.

According to statistics from the FCLS, Whitefish houses 44,603 county library items. In 2009, FCLS spent $201,240 on new materials.

Moran said some of the materials in the Whitefish library were donated specifically to that branch, while others were there before Whitefish joined the county system in 1976. The committee report noted that negotiating material ownership would be one step in the reversion process.

Moran also said, as an independent library, Whitefish could access the Montana Shared Catalog for more material.

Starting up an independent library may incur other costs, such as the catalog subscription and new barcodes and library cards.

According to the minutes from the May 3 city council meeting, several councilors said they would be in favor of reverting back to an independent library if the attorney general officially agrees that the city could access the library taxes. There were also concerns about straining the already stretched city budget.

Two members of the Whitefish City Council are expected to attend the Flathead County Library Board of Trustees meeting on May 27, Leistiko said.