Empty bank building considered for library, county offices

Little Suamico holding town electors meeting Jan. 30 to vote on the proposal
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

A special meeting at the Little Suamico Fire Station on Jan. 30 may have an impact on how Oconto County tax dollars are spent on library services in the future.

Town residents of voting age will be asked to give the Town Board permission to pursue the purchase of the long-vacant former BMO Harris Bank building at 1288 East Frontage Road, with an eye toward converting the structure into a public library and having the county lease space for a sheriff’s department substation and Health and Human Services programs.

The town meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Little Suamico Fire Station, 5964 County Road S, Sobieski.

The board held two informational meetings for electors prior to the vote, and a third session was canceled because of a Jan. 9 snowstorm. At the final information meeting Jan. 24, Town Board Supervisor Elizabeth Paape explained that the board proposes to buy the vacant building for an estimated $499,900 and remodel it for about $370,000, for a total cost of $869,900.

According to figures shared at the informational session, Oconto County would contribute $494,597 toward the project, including $154,431 in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that were allocated to local municipalities to make up for losses incurred during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Grants and donations — including a $100,000 grant pledged by the Leon H. And Clymene M. Bond Foundation — would reduce the town’s commitment to $15,673 for the building purchase and about $159,630 for the remodeling.

“The ARPA funds are only available through 2024,” Paape said. “This opportunity for the Town of Little Suamico has an expiration date.”

County Board Chairman Al Sleeter told the audience of about 100 that the proposal is similar to the project underway in the Town of Riverview, where the county is helping to build a community center, in part with ARPA money, that includes a wing for county offices.

The Little Suamico library would be the seventh local library in Oconto County, and establishing the facility would prevent town dollars from migrating not only to the other six libraries but also Brown County, said Sleeter, Paape and other town board members.

A little-known law, passed in the 1990s with the support of urban legislators, allows counties with consolidated library systems to charge neighboring counties that don’t have county libraries when residents borrow books from the consolidated libraries. Brown County has been able to use that law to charge Oconto County hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

In 2022, the latest year for which statistics are available, Oconto County residents took out 37,108 books and other items from Brown County library branches, with a majority of that circulation — 21,480 items — coming from Little Suamico residents borrowing from the library branches in Howard and Pulaski.

“The Brown County bill that’s due in May 2024 is $157,048,” Paape said. “Little Suamico over the last 10 years has spent $1.2 million that left this town for library circulations and supporting other Oconto County libraries. Wouldn’t it have been nice if it could have stayed here?”

Supervisor Tracey Krumrei emphasized that the proposal would prevent the migration of tax dollars away from Little Suamico.

“If we have our own library, we don’t have to pay that tax to Brown County. You can still go to those libraries and use them, but we’re not taxed at that point,” Krumrei said. “So, if you’re in Green Bay and you think, ‘Jeez, I have to go all the way to Little Suamico to get my books,’ no, you can still go to (Howard), you can still go to Pulaski and use them, but they can’t tax us.”

Town Chairman Dale Mohr said the availability of the one-time federal dollars means the window is closing for the town to act without a much larger influx of local dollars.

“The opportunity before us now probably won’t present itself again because the ARPA money from the county won’t be there,” Mohr said.

He added that a yes vote only opens the door to talks.

“We’re asking you is this a good idea, and if so we’ll take it to the next step, meaning we can negotiate with the sellers of the property … We don’t have to buy the property. We can just walk away. But we cannot even make offers, we can’t get into contracts or anything like that, without the electors saying to do it.”

Mohr acknowledged that a townwide reassessment last fall has already raised local property taxes, but the unique opportunity could allow future tax dollars to stay in Little Suamico.

“Because we have 5,500 people in the town right now, we’re automatically paying the county for library services,” he said. “It’s based on population, so we pay about $185,000 a year to the county, even though we don’t have a library service.”

The proposal was presented at a sparsely attended electors meeting in November, when a resolution failed by a 37-31 vote, Mohr said. The town board considered holding a referendum but were told it can’t do a mandatory referendum, so supervisors decided on a second electors meeting, this time with two informational meetings and information posted on the town website.

Town resident Frank Nowak objected to holding a second electors meeting.

“We did vote on this Nov. 7,” Nowak said. “We voted no, but they weren’t happy so we’re going to keep voting and keep voting and keep voting until they say yes, period. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Nowak interrupted several speakers, at times describing the board’s explanations as lies, until Mohr had him removed from the meeting as disruptive.

Resident Steve Daniels expressed skepticism that the town would save money in the long run.

“I just feel you’re trying to paint a really, really rosy picture, and we’ve had rosy pictures painted before that have come back to bite us in the butt,” Daniels said.

He added that the county is already looking into establishing a southern branch library, but Sleeter pointed out that the proposed southern library and the Little Suamico project are one and the same.

Resident Mike Verba said his college-age sons frequently use the Howard library and were excited to learn a local library might be established seven minutes from the family home.

“In 10 years $1.2 million left our community, plus we have the possibility of losing this COVID money,” Verba said. “I would rather all that stay in this little community. My family will adamantly vote yes for this.”