Library presents master plan, levy proposal to city commission
City Commissioners got their first look at the Great Falls Public Library’s proposed $15 million renovation project and their plans to pursue an operational levy during their Oct. 4 work session.
Susie McIntyre, library director, told commissioners that the current funding structure for the library isn’t sufficient to provide their current level of services and programs.
McIntyre said the library is funded by the city, county, state and the Great Falls Public Library Foundation.
MyIntyre said she’s meeting with city and county officials, as well as the rural library boards, to determine the timing and amount of the levy, but are looking at a total budget of $2.5 million.
If the library maintains its current funding of about $1.5 million, for a city levy they’d ask for about $995,000, McIntyre said.
Great Falls library board pursuing levy
If they go for a county-wide ballot, it would likely be more since the Wedsworth Memorial and Belt libraries would also be included.
McIntyre said she wasn’t sure whether those libraries, with their own boards, would want to be included or for how much and how funding would be distributed amongst the three public libraries in Cascade County. She said that both of those libraries have indicated they are not interested in creating a county library district, which would have its own board to govern all the libraries in the county. In that scenario, the GFPL would no longer be a city department.
McIntyre said they want to be able to open the library more hours per week, which requires more staffing. She said the state library standards for funding require that they’re open 50 hours per week and currently GFPL is open 52 hours per week.
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Staff’s vision, she said, is to be open seven days a week and 61 hours or more. Right now, the library is closed on Sundays.
The library received its new $250,000 Bookmobile last year, but it’s only running a few hours per week due to limited staffing, McIntyre said.
She said they also want to increase staff for safety and have contracted with a part-time social worker who has been able to intervene with suicidal people, schizophrenics and others exhibiting mental or behavioral issues.
Great Falls library master planning underway
McIntyre said they also want to be able to provide free parking to patrons. The library has metered parking in the main lot and splits those funds with the city’s downtown parking program.
McIntyre said the library infrastructure needs significant improvements and they’re planning a capital campaign for the proposed $15 million remodel project independent of the proposed operational levy.
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She told city commissioners that outside of existing funding resources such as the city’s Community Development Block Grant Program, they aren’t planning to ask for taxpayer money for the remodel.
She said currently, the library is only barely meeting state standards, and they aren’t able to offer more programming or services.
“We’re looking at more funding or serious cuts,” McIntyre told commissioners.
The library is projecting a $59,969 deficit in this budget year.
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If revenue and costs continue on the same trajectory, the library will have about a $120,000 deficit in the next budget year or require “severe cuts in services including layoffs and reduced hours,” according to the library.
Initially, staff had planned to send the levy to the November 2023 ballot but indications are that the city will likely put a public safety levy on that ballot and McIntyre said she’d been advised not to try to compete with another levy since voters often pick one versus the other.
There was also consideration of waiting until the spring of 2024, but McIntyre said there was some concern the school district might go for a levy on that ballot.
Now, staff is considering a spring 2023 ballot for the levy.
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The city or county commission could vote to send the levy to the ballot, but if they decline, McIntyre said they’d need to gather signatures and petition to add the levy to the ballot. Those signatures would be due by January, she told commissioners.
McIntyre told city commissioners during the Oct. 4 work session that she wasn’t sure if the county commission would support sending the library levy to the ballot.
McIntyre said the bigger question is whether the levy funding would replace or supplement existing funding or some mixture of those.
The library currently receives two mills of funding that voters approved, which in this budget, equates to $199,105.56.
The library also has an agreement with the city to provide another seven mills, which is $696,869.44 in this budget.
The city also funds the library another $350,000 from the general fund.
Library looking at funding structure options, possibility of levy 
The county funds the library through an agreement for $177,000 annually.
The library received $32,075 in this budget from the state and raised $55,100 in charges for services and fundraising.
The Great Falls Library Foundation provided $254,532 for materials, programming and technology resources. The foundation funds cannot be used for staffing, capital improvements or general operations.
McIntyre said that if the city were to cut its general fund subsidy or renegotiate the additional seven mill agreement, then the library would need to ask for more in the levy.
She said they were planning to hire a consultant to help determine when to conduct the levy and whether it would be successful.
Jill Baker, president of the Great Falls Public Library Foundation, said that the foundation would have to fund that piece since city public resources cannot be used for political advocacy.
If neither the city or county commission supports putting the library levy on the ballot, and they decided to put it on the spring 2023 ballot, McIntyre said they’d need to collect about 2,500 petition signatures by January to send it to the ballot, so she told commissioners she’d need a decision from them soon, preferably in October.
Commissioner Joe McKenney said he didn’t think they should try to compete with the potential city public safety levy on the November ballot in 2023 since people tend to chose one or the other.
Commissioner Rick Tryon asked what the likelihood is of the library having to cut services between now and 2024 if they pushed the levy until then.
McIntyre said that depends on whether the city or county increases library funding “or an angel from heaven gives us a million dollars.”
She said that if they cut hours, they risk losing state funding.
City Manager Greg Doyon said there’s fluidity to this discussion since it also involves the county and the other rural library boards.
He said that like public safety, they’ve known there’s a deficiency in library funding for some time and they’ve just been patching things along.
Doyon said that the library has some options to tax, under state law, that are not available to other city departments and he’d prefer coordination between the city and county for a countywide levy.
“When this community ends up responding, it’s when there’s a critical need,” Doyon said.
He said they don’t want to get to a crisis point with the library because of the services it provides to the community.
Mayor Bob Kelly said these are decisions that have to be made when you’re a growing community.
“The magic here is trying to figure out how much our citizens can afford to have the city they’d like to have,” he said. “The library is not just about books anymore, it’s about so much more. The library is an important, critical, necessary part of our community.”
Kelly said he’s in favor of putting a library levy to the voters.
Baker of the library foundation said they’ve reached out to consulting firms who have worked with other libraries on levies to get bids and expect those next week. She said they have some donors who have indicated support for funding that portion of the process.