County Removes Libraries from Capital Improvement Program

Budget will still fund operational costs, but commissioners do not want county to own library facilities

By Molly Priddy
ImagineIf Library in Kalispell. Beacon File Photo

The ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees held a meeting on June 18 to determine the library’s response to the Flathead County Commission removing all library projects from the county’s capital improvement program.

In a May 21 memo, the commission informed the library of the decision to remove library projects from the capital improvement program (CIP), including the proposed new Bigfork library and the land purchase for a new Kalispell library.

Library projects in the CIP included $1.6 million on the Bigfork library project in fiscal year 2021, and $1.5 million in fiscal year 2023 for the Kalispell land purchase. In fiscal year 2024, the county had a $4.4 million request for the Columbia Falls library, and $17 million for a new Kalispell library.

It’s a decision the commission said was based on the county’s desire not to own any of the library facilities “nor fund any such acquisition or their associated costs,” according to the memo, which originated in a May 16 sidebar budgeting meeting held by the commission. The commissioners also said there was a trend of privatizing libraries across the country, a point the library director disputed at the Board of Trustees meeting.

“There is no trend of privatizing public libraries,” Connie Behe, director of ImagineIF Libraries, said. “We are the only Big Eight city in Montana to not own library facilities at the city or county level.”

The commission is in the budgeting process for the next fiscal year, and according to a June 20 letter, library operations are not being defunded.

“The Commissioners do not want to spend additional tax dollars on new library facilities in Bigfork, Columbia Falls, or Kalispell. Library operations are not being defunded. The present library system will be funded as is, without any changes from previous years. The Commission supports the Library Foundation pursuing other sources of funding, such as grants and community donations, for its planned facility changes,” the June 20 letter said.

Commissioner Pam Holmquist said the letter should have specified that the library system will be funded this year without any changes from previous years, because the commission will continue looking at changing operating costs each year as it goes through the budgetary process.

Holmquist also said the library projects in the CIP hadn’t received funding, and were continually pushed down the road.

“We have always moved it out to later; we’ve looked at our CIP and we’ve never funded this particular CIP option,” Holmquist said. “It would go back and forth and there was never any money designated to that CIP the whole time I’ve been here.”

The commission also removed the proposed county gymnasium project from CIP, despite having put money toward it, Holmquist said, because the cost skyrocketed and it didn’t seem feasible. Funding previously planned to go toward the community gym will be reallocated for trail maintenance and repairs.

At the June 18 library board meeting, the trustees looked at options to bring the library projects into fruition, especially since fundraising for a new Bigfork library facility is in full swing.

Charlotte Housel of the ImagineIF Library Foundation said the foundation has already spent $500,000 on the building, and the $1.6 million would be for renovations and then the foundation hoped to transfer the building’s ownership to the county. The foundation could legally still own the building if the county refuses, she said, but isn’t structured for that responsibility.

The library board directed the foundation to continue fundraising efforts; had they decided otherwise, the foundation would sell the property to recoup its investment and return the capital campaign donations.

Behe said the county’s libraries depend on good-faith relationships with all the entities through which it leases properties for the existing libraries for $1 a year. Kalispell’s School District 5 owns the Kalispell location, the city of Columbia Falls owns the city’s library building, and the Bigfork library is currently in donated space.

While those relationships have been solid, Behe said there is a chance they could end if the owners decide to sell the properties in question, and with the booming real estate market, this is a possibility for which the board should plan. Owning properties would mitigate that fear, Behe said.

To that end, the board discussed a proposal from Eric and David Peterson to move the Kalispell branch into the now-empty, 80,000-square-foot Herberger’s department store in the Kalispell Center Mall, right next to the future downtown walking path.

Initial estimates say the renovations and move could be done for $12 million, whereas building a new library and buying the land to is estimated to cost around $18 million. The library would have the option to lease or buy the property.

The board voted unanimously to invite correspondence about the proposal between the mall and the city and county. It also looked at its legal options for funding, including a potential library district.

The ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees has another meeting planned for June 26, 10 a.m., at the ImagineIF Kalispell branch, 247 First Ave. E.

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