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Libraries ask for ‘catch up’ increase

Steele County Times - Staff Photo - Create Article
Joni Hubred, News Editor

Between 2009 and 2020, when budget time rolled around, no one from Steele County’s two libraries asked for more money.

Now, Owatonna and Blooming Prairie library leaders say, they need to play “catch up.”

That effort started during the last budget cycle when county commissioners approved a 17.5% increase. This year, the request is an additional 16.5%.

The county’s contribution, which sat at $191,500, rose to $225,000 last year and will go to $262,300 if this year’s request is approved. Officials have barely started the 2023 budget process.

Blooming Prairie city administrator Andrew Langholz acknowledged both requests were “sizable,” but would finally make up for 11 years of none at all.

“If nobody’s bringing you the request, you’re not going to do it,” he told commissioners during an Aug. 9 work session. “Going forward, we wouldn’t be looking at significant increases. We would be looking at inflationary increases.”

Both libraries receive the bulk of their funding from their respective cities. The county’s contribution covers the roughly 15% of patrons who live in rural areas. 

Patron-led nonprofit groups fund special programs, furnishings, materials and more. Blooming Prairie branch director Nancy Vaillancourt said county funds are used for core needs.

“When you see, oh, you provided a treat on the story walk, that’s not tax dollars,” she said. “What we rely on you for is the base of our funding.”

Both Langholz and Owatonna library director Mark Blando said patrons are coming back into buildings in the wake of pandemic shutdowns. Blando said use of electronic resources “skyrocketed” over the past two years but has leveled off.

Summer reading program kickoffs attracted more than 600 kids in Owatonna and 150 in Blooming Prairie. Blando said as patrons return, they’re asking for expanded hours, but the library remains short-staffed–and the additional dollars from the county would help.

Both Blando and Vaillancourt said computer use remains strong, as more government agencies and businesses move to online forms and applications.

Vaillancourt said just that morning, a woman arrived in tears. She explained she had been diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t figure out how access medical leave forms her employer required.

Blando said 8-9 of Owatonna’s 15 computers are in constant use during the day. The library’s small meeting rooms have also been in demand.

“We still get people checking out books,” he added. “We still have families come in and check out a stack of books.”

The missing segments, Blando said, are teens and young adults. Library staff is looking at programs and outreach to those groups.

“We have to adapt, and we are constantly trying to fill those needs of our public,” he said.

Commissioners asked for information about the percentage of rural patrons each library serves and for more detailed budget figures. Both library directors said their staff salaries are lower than or comparable to those in similar-sized organizations.

No vote was taken; officials will discuss the request at a future meeting. One commissioner sounded supportive, though concerned about the size of the request.

“We have an amazing library,” commissioner Greg Krueger said. “It has a lot of community support. If you take the two years together, I think the request is a little high, but I know the library does a lot of things for a lot of people.”

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