Aug. 06--The public had a strong message Tuesday for the La Crosse Library Board: Find a way to keep the north and south branch sites alive.
A crowd at least 200 strong so packed the South Community Library -- targeted for closure last year -- the board had to shift from a back room to the library space itself midway through the meeting.
All but one of the roughly 40 who spoke told the board they consider the north and south branch libraries vital to their neighborhoods, a safe gathering place for children or seniors that's close enough to walk or bike, unlike the main library downtown.
"Closing a branch is taking away from people who may not have the means to get downtown," Bonnie Pickett said, later adding, "I think it would be a big step backwards."
Several said the branch sites factored into their decision to buy a home in those parts of the city. "I view them as a quality of life issue here in La Crosse," Daryl Wood said.
Dan Gelatt, board vice-president, explained the financial situation the library now faces: a flat budget, less state money and ever-mounting costs each year for materials, equipment, facilities maintenance and employee health insurance.
Yet the library continues to handle more circulation than institutions in similar-sized Wisconsin cities while operating three sites, unique among its peers, Gelatt pointed out.
The board last year again tapped its reserves to keep the South Community Library open another year while looking for more long-term solutions, but with those reserves drained down, the long-term status remains in doubt. A city task force last month did provide some direction, Gelatt said, but not enough specifics.
Several in the audience took aim at library Director Kelly Krieg-Sigman's proposal to cut hours at the two branches from 39 to 20 a week through 2015, fearing less usage later would become justification for closing the sites. The reduced hours were part of a plan that will keep all sites open through 2015, while an efficiency study is done.
"It looks like a plan to kill these branches," one man said.
Krieg-Sigman said she was looking for input on what might be the best hours for the sites, recognizing a straight 2 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday schedule might not match the need. Some suggested dropping a weekday to be open on Saturdays, or having morning hours on certain weekdays.
But most simply said cutting branch hours by half was too much for what they see as an essential neighborhood service.
Additional money might be found by approaching La Crosse County, which has its own library system so doesn't contribute to the La Crosse Public Library but still accounts for 20 percent of its circulation. La Crosse provides 76 percent of the library's funding -- about $86 per resident -- significantly higher than other, similar-sized Wisconsin cities, most of which have a joint city and county library system.
"How can we get the county," Angie Jack asked, "to pay their fair share?"
Several favored a combined library and senior center, or some other joint use of the sites. Others called for boosting fundraising efforts or even by going to the voters with a referendum on whether they'd be willing to pay more taxes to ensure the branch sites survive.
Some suggested trimming staffing, programs or services at the main library instead, such as a 1 percent, across-the-board pay cut. The library now has a nearly $6 million annual budget, highest in the state when compared with similar-size cities.
"I think everyone has to sacrifice," one woman said, "not just the branches."
Another woman tossed out, "do a keg tax."
That drew a laugh from Krieg-Sigman, who said afterwards she was pleased with the amount of participation.
"We've gotten some valuable input," she said.
The library board has two more such listening sessions set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at North Community Library, 1552 Kane St., and 10 a.m.Aug. 16 at the main library, 800 Main St.
Council member Andrea Richmond, who headed the city task force that looked at ways to keep the branches open, hopes the turnout will be as strong for the remaining sessions.
"Everyone needs to come and listen and bring suggestions," Richmond said.
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