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Decision Delayed on Fate of County Library in Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County Library System Board of Trustees agreed to extend the deadline for the City of Whitefish to decide whether to break from the county and form its own library.

Under normal circumstances, the interlocal agreement between the city and county would roll over on June 30, but recent pressure from a citizen’s group in Whitefish to leave the county system placed the agreement’s terms under scrutiny.

Whitefish City Council sent a formal request to the FCLS Board for a 120-day extension on the deadline for giving notice of terminating the interlocal agreement. The board agreed to the extension at its June 24 meeting, setting an Oct. 28 deadline.

During the four-hour meeting, Whitefish Mayor Mike Jenson told the FCLS Board that the council needed an extension to better understand all the facts from both sides.

He also said Whitefish would then have more time to receive a response from the state attorney general on whether county taxes paid to the library system by Whitefish residents could be transferred to the city library if it leaves the FCLS.

An extended deadline would also increase the chances of resolving the matter without dissolving the interlocal contract, Jenson said.

“Give us some time to talk, is the main thing,” Jenson said. “If it’s possible, maybe it’s something we can resolve. I’m hopeful it’s possible.”

FCLS Board Chairwoman Jane Lopp agreed with Jensen, noting that the board does not want a confrontational situation with the City of Whitefish.

“We feel strongly that we are on the same side of this agreement,” Lopp told Jenson.

In May, the Ad Hoc Whitefish Library Community Committee presented nine reasons why the Whitefish branch should revert back to city ownership in a report to the city council.

The report cited philosophical differences between the Whitefish branch and county management, inequities in library services, materials and staff training and unacceptable treatment of Whitefish employees, among other issues.

Along with these concerns, the Whitefish group provided a potential budget for a new city library, asserting a new library would not cost the city any more than it already pays for the facility.

The FCLS Board approved a detailed response to each of the nine concerns on June 24, as well as responses to questions from Jensen and an analysis of the proposed budget for a stand-alone library. The responses will be sent to Whitefish City Council for consideration.

In the cover letter, the FCLS Board noted that there are definite tensions within the relationship between the Whitefish branch and the county, and “the creation of a stand-alone Whitefish city library will not automatically answer the question of whether a FCLS branch library is needed for the northwestern area of Flathead County.”

The board cited the Whitefish group’s funding plan as one area of concern for a new library. The FCLS report noted that 96 percent of the total taxes currently paid by Whitefish residents for library services goes to staffing costs.

The annual materials budget for FLCS is more than $200,000, the FCLS report states, and Whitefish receives roughly $40,000 in new material each year. The Whitefish group’s proposed budget allocated $2,000 for new materials in the first year.

“It is incomprehensible that the community would be better served by a 95 percent cut in books and media, seeing only 100 or so new items in a year compared to the current rate of 2,000,” the FCLS report stated. “It is not realistic to expect the community to increase donations to support this kind of poor planning.”

Jenson said the city council has not taken a stand on the issue, but it will most likely be concerned with finances as it faces a tight city budget.

“That’s going to be their overriding concern – cost,” Jenson said.

Lopp and Jenson agreed that members from the Whitefish City Council and FCLS Board should meet in the next 120 days to try to smooth over major concerns on both sides and possibly renegotiate the interlocal agreement.

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