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Discussion continues on potential budget cuts to Beltrami County libraries

During the Sept. 6 work session, representatives from the Kitchigami Regional Library System made their case to the Beltrami County Board against proposed budget cuts to the Bemidji and Blackduck Libraries.

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Beltrami County Commissioners listen to a speaker during the open comment period on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — In a continuation of a complicated issue that’s raised significant public attention, representatives of the Kitchigami Regional Library System made their case to the Beltrami County Board on Tuesday against proposed budget cuts to the Bemidji and Blackduck Libraries.

During the Sept. 6 work session, the county board heard from KRLS Director Melissa Whatley on the services the county’s libraries provide and discussed how the conversation related to budgets and reserves had gotten to this point.

“We do have an opportunity for a conversation here, and to discuss what kind of opportunities would be habitable to the county as well as manageable for Kitchigami,” Whatley said.

The presentation was in response to the news that Beltrami County was considering a 35% decrease to the budgets of the Bemidji and Blackduck Libraries, which opponents worry could drastically reduce services at the facilities.

The library system’s request for 2023 from Beltrami County represented a 3% increase from funding this year, amounting to $420,889.

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The county responded to this request with a budget proposal that cut funding down to $265,162, which is the state minimum set in 2011, with members of the budget committee citing the library system’s high reserves as a way to make up the difference.

Whatley noted that these surplus reserves, however, are already being used to buy down the county’s contribution. KRLS committed $42,500 from the surplus to the Beltrami County libraries, altering the funding increase from an initial 15% to the 3% that was presented to the budget committee.

“We discovered that (the reserves were) perhaps a little higher than we would like, and we are working to reduce that amount through responsible spending,” Whatley explained. “The levy request is the way we thought of to try to get that money back to the counties.”

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Patricia Lester speaks about the proposed budget cuts to funding for the Bemidji and Blackduck libraries during an open comment period of a Beltrami County Board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Under KRLS’s plan for the surplus reserves, which total around $4.6 million, the amount that each of the system’s five partnering counties has contributed to those excess funds will be used to buy down funding requests to those counties over the next 10 years. The rest of the surplus is designated for capital improvements and a six-month operating reserve.

“Here we’re spending about a tenth of (Beltrami County’s allotment) buying down the levy. It took 10 years to build it up and it will take about 10 years to buy it down,” explained District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson, who also serves as the county’s representative on the KRLS Board. “I think that’s responsible.”

Confusion on consequences

The knowledge that KRLS has millions of dollars in reserves, however, is what led to the proposal for a 35% cut to the budget. The following lack of information between the library system and the county led to confusion around what the potential consequences of the budget cut could be.

Concerns over these consequences spread to the public, who have voiced their worries over the potential reduction of library hours and services. In Blackduck’s case, there have been worries that the entire library would have to shut down with the decrease in funding.

A small crowd of people attended the Aug. 16 Beltrami County Board meeting to make public comments urging the commissioners to reconsider a proposal to cut the budgets for the Bemidji and Blackduck public libraries by 35%.

The public response has led to District 1 Commissioner Craig Gaasvig raising a question on why KRLS couldn’t simply make up the funding difference if the cut goes through to avoid any changes in services.

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“Why would you put out the message that if we didn’t fund at the level you requested that it would immediately mean that services would be shut down in Blackduck and in Bemidji?” Gaasvig asked. “You have millions of dollars in reserves, why wouldn’t you be able to contribute more to not shut things down?”

Whatley explained that while she could go to the KRLS Board with the proposal, since it's made up of representatives from each of the participating governments there is no guarantee that they would agree to fund the difference and make an exception for just one county.

“It is important that we try to spend this money in a way that is as equitable as possible,” Whatley said. “I can certainly bring that back to the Kitchigami Board, but being one of the 14 entities represented by the board it’s hard to estimate how they might take that and what they might offer.”

If the budget cuts go through and KRLS does not make up the difference, the only alternative would be to cut and reduce services at the county's libraries, and depending on the cut’s severity Whatley said that the closure of Blackduck’s library is possible.

“There’s really not a lot of room to cut except at the branches,” Whatley explained. “(The Blackduck library closing) is a possibility. It’s a 35% cut … that’s a huge amount and that’s a small library.”

Community response

These potential consequences have led to significant public response. At a county board meeting on Aug.16 around 50 community members attended the session to share their concerns about the proposed budget cut and urge the county to fully fund the library.

This public response extended to the Sept. 6 meeting, where more members of the public provided comments in support of the county’s libraries.

“I understand very well the competing demands placed on the finite pool of tax dollars,” said Randy Burg, who formerly served as the county representative to KRLS. “That said, I feel most strongly that there is no more important service provided by the county to its citizens … I urge you to fully fund the library.”

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Randy Burg speaks about the proposed budget cuts to funding for the Bemidji and Blackduck libraries during the open comment period of a Beltrami County Board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

The funding for the library remains undecided, but approval for the preliminary budget is anticipated during the county board’s Sept. 20 meeting. The commissioners thanked Whatley for the presentation and the information that she provided before moving on to the regular session.

“I think that this has been a lesson for a lot of us as far as making sure that when we talk about the budget we have all the players there,” said District 3 Commissioner Richard Anderson. “I think now we just need to move forward with deciding as a board which of these (funding) options we’re going to use.”

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Attendees clap for a speaker during the open comment period of a Beltrami County Board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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