Library Merger Op-Ed
Library Trustee Laura Waterman Wittstock and I wrote a commentary on the library merger. It may be published elsewhere, but in the meatime, I offer it here.
The decision to consolidate the Minneapolis Public Library System into the Hennepin County system is moving at a fast pace.
The library system is something people throughout the city care about deeply and while we have engaged in a community discussion about the libraries over the past years, previous conversations have never included transferring $500,000,000 worth of City assets to the County, dissolving the Minneapolis Public Library system and amending the charter to do away with both the elected Library and Estimate and Taxation Boards.
We think this decision is serious enough that it deserves broader community conversation.
Many of the people we talk to are only beginning to understand the proposal and figure out the questions to ask. They deserve to know the facts and understand the consequences.
According to the best information we have been able to gather from City and Library accounting, the assets break down like this:
$200,000,000 in land, buildings, books, furniture and other materials,
$200,000,000 in city funds to be transferred to the County from 2007 to 2017, for future operating expenses, ongoing building improvements and to pay off debt for past improvements,
$100,000,000, from property taxes, between 2017 and 2032, to pay off debt.
While city taxpayers will still hold a percentage of these assets, as County taxpayers, for years they will be paying a disproportionate amount into the library system and there will be no corresponding disproportionate ownership interest. Minneapolis ownership and control will effectively end, financial responsibility will continue.
Shouldn’t we explore ways to maintain some ongoing control over the future use or sale of those assets?
The current proposal moves the power and control of public assets not downward into the hands of the people but upward and further away from them.
The current elected library board will be gone.
We believe that our independent library board has brought considerable benefits to the people of Minneapolis. The 80-plus year history of the board has given us the system we have today: 15 neighborhood libraries that provide people of all ages and stations with access to information, and the second most extensive collection in Minnesota, following the University.
The County park system includes a mix of members, some elected from districts and some appointed by the Commissioners. The library merger proposal calls for no districts, no elected members and no guarantee that anyone from Minneapolis would ever sit on the board after the first years. Isn’t a more thoughtful discussion of a new governance structure in order?
Not only are we moving the assets and their control further away from the hands of the people, but we are moving the decision itself outside their influence.
Minneapolis elected officials have voted to ask the Legislature to alter our City’s Charter outside the established, more democratic process of a referendum. Last year, Minneapolis saw a successful campaign to change our charter to use Instant Runoff Voting in local elections, arguably a smaller change than doing away with the Library Board and Board of Estimate and Taxation. We studied the issue at length and put it before the voters. That was one path to changing the constitution of our City. The library merger is following another path.
If merging the system is the alternative that will be chosen, it is very important that we make certain that the people of Minneapolis, as well as the County, get the best deal possible in the transaction. If this is a good idea now, it will still be a good idea six months or a year from now. If it is a bad idea, then we need time to consider the issues involved, and make this bad idea better. At the very least, let’s find out before it is too late.
It is unknown if the new consolidated library system will succeed. Those who say they know are expressing their hope. We share this hope, and the conviction that the status quo is clearly not an option. But before it goes forward, let’s take the time to address the community’s concerns, answer their questions and make sure the new system is the best one possible for all the people of Minneapolis and Hennepin County.
Minneapolis City Council Member, Ward 2
Laura Waterman Wittstock
Minneapolis Library Board Trustee