Advocates speak as county commissioners ponder library system future

Mar. 8—Sharee Miller is the librarian and project manager of the Lincoln County Library branch in Troy, but she doesn't know for how much longer.

"This isn't fun for me not knowing if I'll have a job or not," Miller said in an interview Wednesday afternoon with The Western News.

Miller had spoken earlier that morning via Zoom during a public hearing about putting the possible formation of a library district on the June 4 primary ballot. Miller is in favor of it going on the ballot.

If that happens, Lincoln County voters will decide the future of the county's three libraries.

The commissioners will hold a final meeting at 11 a.m. Monday, March 11 and accept public comment before deciding if they'll put it on the ballot.

There was some discussion about it being at next Wednesday's meeting, but county Election Administrator Melanie Howell and others mentioned the need for it to be done by March 12 so it could be listed on the ballot.

Miller works 32 hours per week at the Troy branch while making less than $40,000. Not working 40 hours per week means she isn't eligible for health insurance. If she were to utilize a county insurance plan, the cost would be half of her pay.

"I clean the toilet, I shovel the sidewalks when it snows and I go after grants to keep the library open," she said.

Miller, who realizes the commissioners are in a difficult spot, has spent considerable time working on the Troy Library and Opportunity Center since 2020. An architect was hired to build design plans for the $2 million project with money from a Community Development Block Grant from the county.

Miller said she has sought more than $200,000 in grants to help with library operations and received about $100,000.

"It's allowed us to hire an assistant which is needed when I'm doing story time or some other project that requires my total focus. But grants are not an annual thing. You can't count on getting them every year," Miller said.

She has even stopped seeking grants for the proposed library and opportunity center because of the current situation.

"If we can't staff it, there's no point in building it," Miller said.

Miller commented about some of the ideas she's heard if the county can't support the library system or voters don't approve a tax levy to support it.

"Some people say, 'People could just use the school library or combine the school and county libraries.' Well, some people are not permitted to be inside a school because of their status as an offender. In Troy, the school library has very few books. It has become more of a technology center," Miller said. "They are working to get it back to the point where there are more books, but I've opened the library when it was closed so students who needed materials for their term papers could get the information. We've assisted four homeless people find temporary housing. The modern library is more than just books. It's a community center. People come in to use the internet, print documents, we are a mobile office of sorts for people traveling through the area in the summer."

During Wednesday's public hearing, Commission Chair Josh Letcher said the county received 122 pages of comments about the library system. He also talked about some of the financial issues that led the commissioners to begin pushing the library board to consider its own district.

"The cost of road oil is up considerably and the drastic reduction in timber receipts with the increase in insurance costs as well as Initiative 105 has left us in a tough spot," Letcher said. "We have to be fiscally responsible."

In September 2023, Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chad Benson said only about five million board feet were harvested from the forest, a record low.

Benson, who spoke prior to the library discussion, said forest officials were hopeful for some projects to yield more harvest. But the optimism was generally not high for a drastic difference.

Alyssa Ramirez, director of the Libby branch, previously acknowledged the commissioners are in a tough spot.

"One of the big issues is that in 1986, Initiative 105 froze county property tax levels. They can only be increased at one-half the rate of inflation for the three prior years," Ramirez said. "That really limits what can be done."

The inflationary rate measure was approved in 2001.

The county library system was formed nearly 104 years ago and supported by county property owners. But the collapse of the lumber industry combined with rising costs, such as salaries and health insurance, has led library officials and commissioners to seek a different way to fund the system.

County resident Doug Davies said he believes it's a foregone conclusion the matter of forming a district will be on the ballot.

"If you are sincere about the county's libraries, roll your salaries back," Davies said. "In June 2018, commissioners were making $45,000 and in June 2023, it was up to $63,000 or $64,000."

Letcher defended the cost of living increases the commissioners have approved over the last five years.

"If we don't approve these increases, deputies in the sheriff's office don't get increases because it's all tied together according to state code," Letcher said.

One man said he was against the formation of a district.

"There needs to be outside the box thinking on this," he said. "We should avoid creating another agency."

The mother of a 3-year-old child and a 6-year-old child supported the formation of a district.

"My kids get a lot out of the socialization they experience at the library. I think a small increase is reasonable," she said.

The library system considered forming an independent district nearly a decade ago. Former director Rick Ball sought the change in 2015 to, "ensure stable funding for the libraries, especially in the face of shrinking county budgets."

Library Board Committee Chair Barb Hvizdak said Ball resigned in October 2017 and there was no further discussion regarding a levy.

But costs have increased and the library budget is now $540,000.

"We reached out to the state and they felt forming a district was the best route," Ramirez said. "If the taxpayers approve it, we'd be just as transparent."

Ramirez explained that if the matter appears on the June 4 primary election ballot and is approved by voters, the current 3.49 mill levy would cease to exist.

Library officials are seeking a 13.49 mill levy to pay for running the three branches. If the measure goes on the ballot and voters approve the mill levy, it would increase the annual tax on a $100,000 residence about $18 and on a $200,000 home about $36.42. For a $300,000 home, the annual cost would be $54.

Local attorney Ann German said that is a small price to pay for everything the library offers communities.

"This fellow seems to think he's gonna lose his property if this levy passes, but I'll gladly pay it," German said.

Spring Up Troy's Terrie Lenhart said losing the libraries would be, "devasting for many families in Troy, the Yaak and McCormick areas. There are many folks home schooling their children and the library is critical."

County budget woes have been building for some time.

A year ago, the deficit was $1.6 million. Money from federal sources, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Local Assistance and Tribal Consistency Fund, and cuts to the library ($17,000) and sheriff's office ($191,000) allowed the county to balance its fiscal year 2023-24 budget.. But the ARPA money, $800,000 that was used last year, is gone.