August 20, 2007

Meeker County's library budget increases 17 percent

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Meeker County’s share of the funding for the public library system will be 17 percent more in 2008 than it was this year. This year’s share also was up about 14 percent over last year’s.

Yet, the Meeker County Board of Commissioners can’t explain to their constituents why there’s so much fluctuation, because the formula used to determine the county’s share is so complicated, County Commissioner Amy Wilde said.

Meeker County is expected to come up with $193,673 for 2008.

That’s why Wilde, who is a member of the board for the Pioneerland Library System, invited Nancy Walton, a state library program specialist, to the county board meeting Tuesday.

Walton brought along 15-column wide spread sheets illustrating the formula, called Library Maintenance of Effort, for Meeker County, and the libraries in Dassel, Litchfield, Cosmos, and Grove City. At the end of Walton’s presentation, none of the county board members, nor county administrator, Paul Virnig, was any clearer on how the formula worked, they said.

Virnig said it was possible Walton was the only person in the state who actually understood how to apply the formula.

It appeared the formula was based on tax capacity and population. However, if a county had large swaths of valuable farm land and a static population, it could conceivably have to pay more for library services than a county with a bigger population, Virnig pointed out.

Wilde said the Pioneerland board planned for a 6 percent budget, and was shocked the state expected 17 percent increase instead. When the Pioneerland board complained, the state threatened to cut off the system’s technology and computer access. Also, cities have a choice whether to fund the system, but the county doesn’t. Wilde insisted the formula was an unfunded mandate by the state.

Walton countered, though, that both the state and federal government pay for library services so it’s not unfunded. However, part of the problem with the formula is a two-year lag in getting population numbers. Also, in 2004, the legislature changed the tax rate, and the state is trying to catch up.

States and counties have many uncontrollable expenses, such as the cost of bituminous and health insurance, Wilde said.

The expense is controllable, however, because it is between one level of government and another, she said.

Wilde demanded that Walton tell Governor Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the legislature that library system funding needs a “circuit-breaker,” to prevent double-digit increases. She said McLeod County also had a double-digit increase for 2008, and its county board is as dismayed as Meeker County’s board is.

Virnig also suggested revamping the formula so funding remains stable, and at the same time, is understandable to the taxpayers.

In addition, Wilde gave Walton a sample letter to the editor to send to area newspapers explaining the double-digit increases to taxpayers. Walton declined to use the letter, however, and said the department of education has communication specialists for that purpose.

Then Commissioner Ron Kutzke joked the communications specialists at the department of education probably didn’t understand the formula either.

Odds and ends

In other business, the board:

• accepted the resignation of Deputies Brian Massingham of Dassel and Ben Aho of Watkins. Both have new jobs with the Litchfield Police Department. Meeker County Sheriff Mike Hirman said part of the reason they preferred working for the Litchfield Police Department is because of its health insurance.

• noted that Tim Magnuson and Jeffrey Garland of the Corvuso church volunteered to be chaplains for the Meeker County Sheriff’s Office.

• set a public hearing for Meeker Washed Sand & Gravel’s expansion permit for Tuesday, Sept. 11 at 9 a.m.

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