Aug. 16—BEMIDJI — When Sheri Gordon first became branch manager for the Bemidji Public Library in 2015, she used to boast about how supportive Beltrami County was of the library system, and considered herself lucky when she talked to peers in other regions.
"I used to tell everyone that we're really lucky to have a county that supports our library because there are many libraries where the communities aren't as supportive as the county has been to us," Gordon said.
Now, however, Gordon feels that support might be drying up quicker than she could have imagined after receiving word that the Beltrami County Budget Committee is considering cutting the library budget by 35%.
As a part of the Kitchigami Regional Library System, which covers nine libraries in five counties, the Bemidji and Blackduck Public Libraries put in their funding request to Beltrami County for 2023.
"This year KRLS requested $420,889. That's a 3% increase from what (Beltrami County) funded us last year," Gordon said.
The increase would have been much more when considering rising costs across the country, but KRLS committed $42,500 from its general fund to help offset what otherwise would have been an increase of 15%.
But when the library system heard back from the county budget committee, the proposal was a decrease of 35% from 2022, amounting to $265,162.
"Beltrami County didn't come by these numbers arbitrarily," Gordon explained, adding that it's the minimum funding required by state statute, which was set in 2011. "What they're proposing is based on what they funded us in 2011, but since then we've increased the number of people who work here, the number of patrons we serve."
With the 35% decrease, the Bemidji library would likely have to make considerable cuts to the services it provides, decrease the library's hours and potentially lay off staff.
"A 35% decrease from our budget would be devastating for the library," Gordon shared. "Even if we put a complete moratorium on purchasing new materials that wouldn't even cover half of the proposed cuts. The only thing left is to cut personnel and to cut hours."
According to Gordon, the library would likely have to close on Saturdays, and its evening hours during the rest of the week may also be reduced.
"I understand that everybody needs to tighten the budget," she said. "We're willing to take our hits, but this seems unfair."
Ultimately the people who would be most impacted by a reduction in library hours and services would be those who depend on it for access to the internet, technology and a place to stay during the day.
"We get a large number of people coming in not only to check out books but who come in when it's too cold or hot outside," Gordon explained. "This is the only place in the city they can hang out all day without the expectation of spending money or doing anything."
While the library might seem like an easy place to make budget cuts, Gordon believes the county hasn't taken into consideration the full impact it might have on the community.
"I don't think they're really considering the impact that this has, not just on the library itself, but on the citizens of the area," she said.
The library system isn't the only part of the county facing budget cuts. With costs increasing for the public and governments alike, members of the budget committee approached the proposal for 2023 with that at the forefront.
"Right now we're facing high inflation rates. The cost of food is going up, the cost of living is going up, everything is increasing except the paycheck," Beltrami County Commissioner Tim Sumner, who is on the budget committee, told the Pioneer.
For the members of the committee, reducing the tax burden on the public was a priority and other county departments are also facing budget cuts to meet that goal.
"It's always been a goal of the county board to keep the levy as low as possible, and other departments have trimmed their budgets significantly," Sumner said. "It's only fair that we ask our partners (like KRLS) to review their budgets as well."
Members of the budget committee also had another consideration when they decided to cut the library budget after they heard that the KRLS had a large reserve fund.
"Knowing that they have a large reserve makes me wonder and question why they're not accessing those reserves to help with any budget shortfalls that they might have," Sumner commented.
The library system's reserves currently have around $1.1 million in excess funds, the result of a fiscally cautious former director, but the organization has already committed the funds to capital improvement costs.
"It's very narrow how those funds can be used," Gordon said, adding that Bemidji's share is around $411,000. "Those funds can't be used for personnel or material costs. They must be used for capital improvement costs."
Beltrami County Commissioner Reed Olson, who while not on the budget committee is the liaison to the library board, argued that those funds can't and shouldn't be used to make up for budget cuts made by the county.
"We (at KRLS) do have reserves and we have identified that our reserves are way higher than where they ought to be and we're doing things to bring our reserves down," Olson explained. "What we're not going to do and should not do is use our reserves for the benefit of one participating local government."
While Olson understands his colleagues' desire to keep the levy down, he believes asking the library system to cover the budget shortfall is unreasonable in not considering the other five counties that are a part of KRLS and doesn't take into account the impact reduced library services would have on communities.
"This is just a very bad idea that I think came out of an academic exercise of staring at a bunch of black and white numbers on a piece of paper without any consideration for the ramifications of those cuts," Olson said.
For Sumner's part, he understands that the cuts to the library's budget could have significant impacts, but hopes that people realize the county is facing a similar situation with its own operations.
"Our situation at the county is the same, we're feeling that as well," Sumner said. "These are tough decisions that we have to make in order to make sure that our citizens aren't feeling the blow of this economic situation we're going through."
The budget cuts are not final, however, until the county board approves the proposal on Sept. 20. Until then, adjustments can be made, something that Sumner acknowledged.
"There's still an opportunity to make some changes, whether that's a full cut, a partial cut, or to fully fund the request," Sumner said. "I'm looking for a compromise."
The library, meanwhile, is asking for community members to reach out to members of the county board to advocate for the library. This can be done through email, phone calls, or in-person public comments at any of the county board meetings before Sept. 20.
"We really need to let the county commissioners know how much the library means to the community," Gordon said.
Meetings will be held at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16, at Northern Town Hall and Tuesday, Sept. 6, in the board room at the County Administration Building.