Library levy goes to city ballot June 6

Updated at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 24

City voters will have a chance to decide if they want to pay more for library services on the June 6 ballot.

It’s a special election for city voters to decide if they want to amend the city charter to increase the levy for the Great Falls Public Library from the current maximum of two mills to 17 mills.

Commissioners voted unanimously during their Feb. 21 meeting to send the charter amendment proposal to the voters, which is required to amend the city charter.

City Commission votes to send library levy to June ballot

The proposed special election would cost about $48,000, according to city staff, and the library will use the library fund to pay that expense.

City library levy hearing on Feb. 21

Initially, library staff planned to put the library levy question on the May school ballot, but legal staff determined that wasn’t an option under state law.

Staff considered the November ballot, but had been advised by the commission last year that they didn’t want to put the library levy on the same ballot as the proposed public safety levy.

If approved, the city would be able to levy up to 17 mills annually.

Public hearing on library levy set for Feb. 21

But the city doesn’t have to take that whole amount and the levy amounts are determined annually during the budget process.

During the Feb. 21 meeting, Library Director Susie McIntyre said that funding for the Great Falls library hasn’t kept up with needs and costs. She said the Great Falls community spends $19 per capita on the library as opposed to the state average of $31.

“I believe that the library is a cornerstone to having a good community,” McIntyre said. “A properly funded library can help build that community.”

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The library board and staff have been discussing the library funding structure and the need for a levy since the summer of 2021.

“We’re playing catchup,” McIntyre said of the need for additional library funding.

Voters approved a two mill levy for the GFPL in 2000 and in the management agreement, the city gives an additional seven mills, plus additional funding support on top of that.

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The library is funded through a mix of city, county and state dollars, as well as support from the Great Falls Public Library Foundation, but that funding is specific to programs and collections and cannot be used for operations, staffing or capital improvements.

If the levy was approved, the additional 15 mills would generate about $1.55 million, increasing the library’s operating budget to about $2.7 million annually.

The library would maintain the seven mills from the city set in the management agreement.

Library board to discuss levy options

If the levy is approved, the city would cease the additional $350,000 from the general fund that could then be used for other city needs.

Under an agreement between the county commission and library board, the county has funded the library $177,000 annually, an amount that hasn’t increased since 2011.

Without the levy, the library is projecting a $120,000 shortfall for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

In that case, McIntyre said they’d have to cut staff, hours and services.

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She said the library would probably go down to being open five days a week and below the minimum of 50 operating hours per week required by the Montana State Library standards and would result in a loss of $30,000 of state funding.

“This is a really stark choice for our community for what we want,” McIntyre said.

One of the things included in the proposed levy that has some opponents upset is a mental health counselor.

Several people spoke during the public hearing that they don’t think such a service should be in the library and that such a service would attract more people experiencing mental health challenges and homelessness.

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McIntyre said that a mental health counselor has been in the library for 12 hours a week since last summer under a pilot program funded by a grant through the local area council on mental health.

She said that through the library’s master plan process last year, some community members said they didn’t feel safe because of some of the people in or near the library.

The mental health counselor has provided de-escalation and helped address patron behavior issues, as well as connected people with other resources, McIntyre said. The counselor is not there to provide therapy, she said.

McIntyre said it was a response to community feedback and that the library is one of the top 10 places that call dispatch for law enforcement support. She said $30,000 for a part time counselor to help address those issues was a “great investment” to reduce the reliance on local emergency responders and also improve safety for everyone in the library.

Great Falls library board pursuing levy

The library is a public place, McIntyre said, which is open to all so long as they follow the patron behavior guidelines. As a government facility, everyone has a right to be in the facility, regardless of their mental health or housing status, she said, so long as they adhere to the behavior policy. The library has options to address anyone violating the behavior policy, up to trespassing someone from the library.

If passed, the levy would, according to staff:

  • expand library hours to be open seven days a week
  • expand Bookmobile services to six days a week providing more services to daycares, schools and seniors
  • expand youth services programs including early literacy outreach, school age programming, and college and life preparedness for teens
  • provide more lifelong learning opportunities including expanded collections, electronic resources and adult and senior programing
  • restart and expand outreach services including the homebound program
  • enhance technology resources including providing Internet access and digital resources.

Jill Baker, director of the Great Falls Public Library Foundation, said that they’ve worked with the library to do public outreach, the master plan and polling for the levy.

The foundation provides funding to enhance library services.

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“We have done everything that is within our bylaws to financially support our library,” Baker said.

She said that the library is a public institution and “it is the community’s responsibility to provide the operational funding. The community provides the cake, we provide the icing.”

Jane Weber, former county commissioner, said that the library provides information and “information is power. The library is the place that empowers people. The library is the candy store for the mind.”

Molly Beck, chair of Yes for Libraries, the independent group established to advocate for the library levy.

Library looking at funding structure options, possibility of levy

She said that the library offers free Wifi, the Libby app for reading library books digitally, books, magazines, movies and more.

“A well funded library can be a cost savings when utilized,” she said.

McIntyre said the library checks out more than 250,000 items annually.

The Great Falls Public Library has about 122,300 physical items in the collection and through the MontanaLibrary2Go Consortium Libby App, provides access to 46,179 titles for digital download.

The library also recently joined the Partners Sharing Group through the Montana State Library, giving local patrons access to materials at 21 other libraries, more than tripling the number of materials available.

Great Falls library goes live with statewide partner program Feb. 1

Others spoke in opposition to the levy with many of their comments centering on the mental health counselor and LGBTQ materials available in the library.

Some of those who spoke in opposition were active last year in claiming that local elections had been fraudulent, despite no evidence of those claims locally, and advocated for eliminating mail ballots and counting all ballots by hand.

Some speaking in opposition do not live in the city limits and would not pay the increased library levy, unless they own property within the city limits.

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Jeni Dodd said she feels it’s wrong to hire a social worker and has specific issues with some materials such as Gender Queer, a graphic novel memoir about coming out as nonbinary.

Published in 2019, it became the most banned book in the county by last year, according to the New York Times.

Opponents argued the book was available in the juvenile section and contained pornographic material.

McIntyre said the book was in the adult section at the Great Falls library. It’s also available in libraries across Montana.

Some opponents said the library was pushing an agenda and that they were opposed to hosting drag queen story hours at the library.

Great Falls library hosting Black History Month event

During the meeting, McIntyre said the library has not hosted a drag queen story hour nor do they have plans to do so. She said the library partners with community organizations to mark events such as Pride, as well as Paris Gibson Month, Native American, Hispanic and Black heritage months, as well as holidays, religions and other cultural events.

McIntyre told The Electric on Feb. 24 that she had misspoken and the library had a video story hour from the Mister Sisters during COVID.

“I believe that having information about rich and diverse cultures is not something to be afraid of but something to embrace,” McIntyre said.

Lauren Ravenscroft said increasing the library levy would cause rents to increase in Great Falls and that she doesn’t believe it’s the library’s job to help connect people with mental health resources since there are other agencies in town for that work.

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Mike Shearer said he was opposed to the “extravagance of the request” and that with other levies recently passed and proposed, “we’re getting levied to death.”

Colleen Stewart said that she used to go to the library often, but what she’s been hearing “makes my heart very sad.”

She didn’t specify what things she was referring to other than the sexually explicit materials others had said were in the library collection.

Cheryl Shearer said she doesn’t see an urgent need for the library to be open seven days a week or to add employees.

McIntyre said there’s a process for patrons to submit concerns over materials in the library collection that are reviewed by staff and if needed, the library board.

Great Falls library hosting Black History Month event

She said in her nearly 18 years working at the library, no complaints had risen to the library board level and they’d had maybe five complaints submitted overall.

She joked that the library has materials to offend everyone in Great Falls with its wide range of materials because there are people in the community who are interested in different topics.

“It’s my job to ensure that there’s something to offend everyone,” in the collection, McIntyre said. “If you’re a vegan, I’ve got books about eating meat. If you’re a carnivore, I have books about vegan. If you’re far left, I have books about being far right, if you’re in the middle, I have books about being far out.”

Some of those opposed said they were concerned that parents don’t have access to see what their kids have checked out with their own library card. The Great Falls library allows minors 14 and older to get a library card without a parent signature.

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Under state law, a person’s library checkout history, even for minors, is protected and cannot be accessed by parents or anyone else.

McIntyre said she believes it’s up to parents to determine what their kids read, but the library makes a wide range of materials available to the community.

Commissioner Rick Tryon said that he only heard two reasons to potentially not put the levy question on the ballot, those were the cost of a special election and the potentially narrower voting pool in June versus May or November.

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The election cost for the city will likely be similar in November, but that will include the mayor and commission election and potentially the public safety levy.

The city would have shared the election cost with the school district if it had been on the May ballot, which the county has not yet finalized details for as IPS is closing at the end of February.

Legally, the city couldn’t put it on the May ballot, according to staff.

Tryon asked why the library wasn’t proposing to put it on the November ballot.

“We are not putting it on the November ballot because we were asked by the city commission to not compete against the public safety levy,” McIntyre said.

If the commission wanted to put it on the November ballot, they could do so, she said, with either both levies or push one to next year.

Tryon said he was “torn on it” because of the cost, but “I think the issue is important enough to let the voters decide.”