Officials looking at options for library funding structure

Officials at the Great Falls Public Library are continuing the discussion of options for their funding structure.

The library is underfunded and understaffed, Library Director Susie McIntyre told Cascade County Commissioners during an Oct. 6 work session.

She said the library is struggling to meet Montana Public Library standards and if they don’t meet those standards, they risk losing about $31,000 in state funding.

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McIntyre said Cascade County residents are missing out on needed resources and services with the current funding structure.

The current operational budget is $1.4 million.

City voters approved a 2 mill levy for the library in 2000 and in the library-city management agreement, the city gives an additional seven mills, plus additional funding on top of that. The combined nine mills annually from the city to the library has ranged from $606,942 to $976,468 over the last decade. The city has also provided additional annual support ranging from $350,000 to $492,000, bringing the city’s support to around $1 million annually.

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For each year since fiscal year 2011, with the exception of fiscal year 2016, the county has contributed $177,000 to the operation of the Great Falls Public Library.

“That just is not adequate,” McIntyre said during a July library board meeting.

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The county also provides funding for the Cascade and Belt libraries that has ranged from $67,530 in 2012 to $102,000 in the last budget.

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The population outside of the city limits that the library provides services for is about 19,525 people, according to GFPL data.

McIntyre said during the Oct. 6 meeting with the county commission that library funding isn’t equitable between city and county taxpayers.

The city manager has said it’s unlikely that additional funding will be available from the city budget in the future.

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Earlier in the day, County Commissioner Joe Briggs had said that the county contributes more than $1 million in funding for the City-County Health Department though the bulk of users live in the city limits. The city has contributed $250,000 to CCHD for some time.

Similar discussions over equitable funding have been had and continue to brew related to the joint 911 dispatch center that get the bulk of its funding from the city.

The library receives about $2,359 in state funding through library federations and about $31,000 from the state through a per capita formula, McIntyre said.

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The library also generates about $30,450 through charges for services such as parking, leases, notary, proctor, copies, etc.; $7,500 in payments for lost books and about $12,500 in other income such as interest on the library fund and other fundraising activities.

The private library foundation also contributes about $170,000 to $220,000 annually, but the foundation is specific in the types of needs they’ll support.

McIntyre told commissioners that there are several options to consider in changing the library funding structure. 

One option is a city mill levy that would only apply to city residents. She said that’s a good option if the other smaller libraries in the county don’t want additional funding, but it doesn’t address the inequity between what county and city residents pay for library services.

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Another option is a county-wide mill levy, which would allow the county to generate revenue for the three libraries in the county, which include Belt and Wadsworth, and they could split it in some equitable way, McIntyre said.

A third option is the creation of an independent library district in the county with its own funding, but the other libraries have said they aren’t interested, McIntyre said.

A fourth option is a multijurisdictional service district, which is allowable under Montana law, she said.

McIntyre said things to consider are whether in a changed funding structure if the city and county would continue their library support at the current level, or would that replace the existing funding streams.

She said the library is considering a master plan process, similar to what the Great Falls Park and Recreation Department did in 2016 to create the Park Master Plan.

That’s a nine to 12 month process and needs a consultant, that the library foundation has already set funds aside for, McIntyre said.

Staff is working on the request for proposals for a master plan consultant now, she said.

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She said then they’d have to decide on what funding options to pursue as well as the timing as they wouldn’t want to compete with any potential school or public safety levy.

“This is just the beginning of a conversation,” McIntyre said.

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The library can continue to function for the near future, but they’re open a bare minimum number of hours and that’s with administrative staff working the desk, meaning they can’t do things other communities do because they don’t have enough staff. The library currently has 18.5 full time employees, according to McIntyre’s September report to the library board.

“We have got to fix our funding or we are not going to be a functional library” in the near future, McIntyre said.

She said the Lewis and Clark County library’s budget is about $4 million and she’s hoping to get the Great Falls library’s operating budget up to $2.5 million annually.

That would let them run the Bookmobile six days a week, compared to the current three days; be open seven days a week and offer more programming.

The library also needs more repairs, in addition to the roof repair project currently underway. Those projects could be funded through a bond levy or a capital campaign, options for which would be addressed in the master plan, she said.