BEMIDJI — In a significant step regarding the issue of funding the Bemidji and Blackduck libraries, the Beltrami County Board narrowly passed a motion on Tuesday to include the full funding request of the Kitchigami Regional Library System in its preliminary 2023 budget approval.
During its session on Sept. 20, after a slightly heated discussion, Commissioners Reed Olson, Richard Anderson and Craig Gaasvig voted in favor of including KRLS’s full request for 2023, amounting to $420,889, in the county’s preliminary budget. Commissioners Tim Sumner and Jim Lucachick voted against the motion.
This follows a contentious series of meetings over the funding of the libraries, which began when the county’s budget committee originally proposed a 35% decrease to the Bemidji and Blackduck libraries, which would have reduced the county’s contribution to $265,162 — the minimum level required by state statute.
“For whatever reason, we’re picking on the library of all things,” Olson said to his fellow commissioners. “It’s so absurd I don’t even know how to put together an argument that’s going to resonate with you. Our thanks to them is saying we’re going to cut your budget by 35%.”
Members of the public spoke out against the proposed cuts, citing fears that the county’s libraries would have to reduce hours and cut staff. Concerns for the fate of the Blackduck Library and whether it might be shut down entirely since it’s already open just 21 hours a week, were particularly high.
This was something Olson brought forward during the meeting, sharing a petition that community members in the Blackduck area had signed in support of their library.
“I was given a petition from the good people in Blackduck. There’s 136 signatures here,” Olson said. “It does show that a lot of people in Blackduck are very concerned about their library being adequately funded.”
Gaasvig, who was originally against fully funding the library’s request, explained in previous meetings that the budget committee proposed the cuts because of the substantial reserves that KRLS has accrued, expecting that those reserves could be used to make up the funding shortfall.
“They should not have come with an increase in the first place when you have that much in reserves,” Gaasvig said. “To me it was irresponsible.”
Sumner also expressed disappointment in KRLS's communication throughout the budgeting process and what he viewed as misinformation about the consequences of the cuts.
“Where’s the proof in all this?" he asked. "I think KRLS really missed the opportunity to inform us on how this really affects their ability to operate.”
KRLS, which does have significant surplus reserves that it identified in 2019, is already using those funds to buy down the county’s contribution, however, as noted by Olson who serves as the county board’s representative on the KRLS Board.
The request for $420,889 for 2023 is a 3% increase from the requested funding for 2022, and Olson explained that the original request would have been for a 15% increase if it hadn’t been for KRLS contributing $42,500 from its reserve funds to buy down its request.
The rest of the reserves, Olson explained, will continue to be used to buy down future funding requests for the county until they run out.
“KRLS will continue to buy down our costs with those funds until they run out,” Olson said, adding that to use all of the reserves in one year would be irresponsible.
Olson also explained that upon identifying the reserves, the KRLS board, which has representatives of 13 local governments, had spent 18 months arguing and negotiating to come up with the current plan to spend them. Convincing the other members to alter those plans, according to Olson, would be nearly impossible.
Anderson agreed with this, adding that new negotiations could take longer than the available time to fund the libraries for 2023.
“It will not happen that quick, it just won’t because of the nature of so many different groups,” Anderson said. “We only have one vote (on the KRLS board).”
Another aspect for Olson was the amount that cutting funding for the library would actually impact the county’s tax levy. Under the proposal with minimum funding, the tax levy increase would be 6.39%, compared to an increase of 6.87% with the library fully funded at its 2023 request — a difference of .48%.
“It’s going to save us about 50 cents per $100 we pay in property taxes, and it will surely mean a loss of staff and a loss of operating hours,” Olson said. “You’re asking (the KRLS board) to give us special favors because you don’t want to see a half percent higher levy increase.”
For Sumner, however, asking the county to fully fund the library, knowing they have reserves, when other departments are cutting their budgets felt unfair.
“To me, (KRLS is) coming to the county board asking for a special favor, when we’ve had departments that have trimmed their budgets and are looking out for us here,” he added.
Olson made a motion to approve the preliminary budget that included the full request of KRLS, and when it came to a vote Anderson and Gaasvig both supported it, allowing it to narrowly pass 3-2.
Gaasvig, who hesitated before his yes vote, explained that he didn’t want to see cities like Blackduck have to make up the difference by increasing their levy just to keep the libraries operating as normal.
“I feel like the library system is holding a gun to our head because they aren’t willing to use the reserves as they should,” Gaasvig said. “Because I don’t want to see Blackduck fund their levy and have Blackduck charged more, I’m going to vote yes.”
This sets the preliminary tax levy increase for Beltrami County at 6.87%. This number is not final, but it can only be lowered from its current level.
Funding for the libraries is not guaranteed until the final budget and tax levy decision, which is expected on Dec. 20.