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Bill Pulkrabek: Lake Elmo Shouldn't Check Out of Library System

Lake Elmo's plans to pull out of the Washington County Library system aren't justified, Pulkrabek argues.

On June 29 the Lake Elmo mayor and City Council surprisingly voted to secede from the Washington County Library system. This unprecedented and drastic move marks the only time that a city has ever disaffiliated from the library system. If the city does not reconsider by Sept. 13—preliminary budgets are then set—it will have far-reaching, unfavorable consequences for Lake Elmo residents. I hope the mayor will reconsider.

A stated justification for the city’s rogue action is the reduction of hours (28 to 20) at the Lake Elmo Library in 2009. It should be noted that several county branch libraries experienced a reduction in hours in 2009. This county-wide cost savings measure has not affected check-out rates, which still remain low. The number of items checked out annually from the Lake Elmo library has remained approximately the same from 2007 to 2010. 

The branch library in Lake Elmo is simply not the library of choice by the overwhelming majority of Lake Elmo residents. Approximately 80 percent of all items checked out by Lake Elmo residents are checked out at surrounding libraries—Oakdale, Mahtomedi, Stillwater and Woodbury. This fact has remained constant from 2007 to 2010. 

Another justification that the city has espoused to justify withdrawal is that Lake Elmo is being overcharged. Lake Elmo residents collectively are taxed approximately $260,000 for county-wide library access and usage. It costs the county about $130,000 annually to run the local Lake Elmo branch. Does this mean Lake Elmo residents are getting shortchanged? No, quite the contrary. The difference goes to fund libraries outside of Lake Elmo, which are the ones actually utilized by Lake Elmo residents. Only nine of 33 cities and townships in Washington County have a library. Hence, most tax-paying communities do not have a library within their borders. 

What will be the result of this decision by the City of Lake Elmo? First, Lake Elmo is wrongly assuming that they will be able to get a “new” library up in running in three short months. Most libraries take a year and a half or longer to open. The city will be lucky if its library opens before 2013! Second, the cost of books, computers, capital and staff will far exceed any “savings” that Lake Elmo is assuming. The cost to purchase the existing book collection alone is estimated at $175,000. The city has neither the funding nor the expertise to run a successful library. This shift of library responsibility will most likely result in substantial property tax hikes by the city. 

The most parochial result is that Lake Elmo residents will be confined to using only the Lake Elmo library. The City of Lake Elmo will have usurped all of their local funding used for the county-wide system and dumped it exclusively into the Lake Elmo municipal library. In financial fairness to the rest of Washington County, residents who fund the county-wide system, Lake Elmo residents will be assessed a fee—about $60 per person—if they wish to utilize the county-wide system rather than merely the city’s municipal library.  

The City of Lake Elmo points out that Stillwater has its own municipal library and its residents may use the county-wide library system with no aforementioned fee. What they fail to mention is that Stillwater has already paid its fair share. The City of Stillwater paid $11 million to renovate its library; the book collection is worth an additional $3 million. By way of comparison, the entire annual budget for the City of Lake Elmo is about $2.75 million. 

What is the solution? For the good of Lake Elmo residents, Lake Elmo should stay in the county’s library system and work with us at Washington County to transition to a Library Express Service (24/7 kiosk system) that has already been popularly implemented in Hugo. This use of technology to innovate and extend access via technology is a successful, progressive paradigm. My fellow county commissioners, staff and I are currently working cooperatively with Newport and Marine on the St. Croix to make this transition in their communities.  Lake Elmo should respectfully do the same, instead of tearing up their Washington County Library card. 

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