Committee steps back from consolidated library system

Proposal to reduce county library funding draws resistance
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

The committee working to create the next five-year plan for Oconto County libraries backed away April 9 from the idea of forming a consolidated countywide library system, after hearing that towns in the northern part of the county rejected the idea.

Instead the Oconto County Library Planning Committee unanimously approved the status quo of six independently operated community libraries with a revised funding structure to be determined. The six library directors were recruited to bring a funding plan to the committee’s May 14 meeting.

Vice Chairwoman Kathleen Marsh, a representative from the Lakes Country Library in Lakewood, told the committee that the towns of Townsend, Lakewood, Doty and Riverview were poised to pass resolutions stating they would not participate in a consolidated county system, either at this month’s town board meeting or at their annual town meetings April 16.

The current five-year library plan for 2020-24 designates 2.1% of the previous year’s property tax levy toward supporting the six libraries. That amounts to $457,036 in 2024, and the county must also pay an invoice to Brown County for services provided to Oconto County residents at its branch libraries. The combined budget comes to about $615,000 this year, said Finance Director and interim County Administrator Lisa Sherman.

The key is finding a way to reduce the tax bill currently being shared by the 11 towns that are not affiliated with a local library, County Clerk Kim Pytleski said. As other towns have formed joint relationships with neighboring municipalities’ libraries, the “unlibraried” towns have shouldered greater percentages of the Brown County bill.

“The Town of Little Suamico was exploring a future library, but those residents do feel that they’re being served by those Brown County libraries they attend,” Pytleski said. “I know everyone comments that that’s a big bill to be sending outside of our county, but our residents are being served, so can we figure out how to work with Brown County and have some conversations about that bill?”

Oconto County has recently been working with Brown County for other services, so the southern neighbor may be open to a conversation, especially with new Oconto County Administrator Richard Heath starting April 22, Pytleski said.

Marsh has advocated tapping the Oconto County sales tax to supplement the property tax investment in libraries, but County Board Chairman Al Sleeter said that would probably be a hard sell for supervisors. Sleeter said his own preference is to use the sales tax for public safety purposes.

The committee appeared to be moving toward a proposal that would bring the county’s total libraries budget down to about $500,000, forcing the municipalities to increase their share of library costs.

Amy Peterson, director of Farnsworth Public Library in Oconto, said that would put a strain on operations.

“Gillett and Oconto are already at a pretty high level of funding for their municipal libraries,” Peterson said. “There isn’t a ton of wiggle room.”

Oconto Falls City Administrator Peter Wills echoed that thought.

“One of the voices we haven’t heard is from the residents of those cities,” Wills said. “We’re talking about taxing them, but so far in this process I don’t see how their voice is going to be included.”

Committee chairwoman Debra Schroeder told Wills the five-year plan must go through a public hearing before it reaches the county board for a vote.