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Lincoln Co. voters will decide fate of county library system

Mar. 15—Voters in Lincoln County will decide the fate of its three libraries.

At a special meeting on Monday, March 11, Commissioners Josh Letcher, Brent Teske and Jim Hammons voted to put the question of forming a separate library district on the June 4 primary election ballot.

Voters who support the creation of the district will be approving 13.49 mills of property tax to operate the district.

According to calculations by the county, the annual tax to support libraries in Libby, Troy and Eureka would be $18.21 for the owner of a property with an assessed market value at $100,000. For the owner of a $300,000 property, it would be $54.63 and for a $600,000 property, the tax would be $109.27.

The county library system was formed nearly 104 years ago and supported by county property owners. But various factors, including the failure of the lumber industry combined with rising costs, such as salaries and health insurance, have led library officials and commissioners to seek a different way to fund the system. Some have also questioned county spending, including in the sheriff's office.

At the March 6 commission meeting, Laura Finley, Troy's representative to the county library board, said the commissioners voting for a 1.5% cost of living pay increase was, "fiscally irresponsible."

"The optics aren't great," Finley said. "We need competitive pay, but with the rising costs, if we can't afford it, we shouldn't be doing it."

Commission Chair Josh Letcher defended the commission's decision to increase pay.

"I appreciate your comment, but the only way deputies in the sheriff's office get a raise is if the sheriff and other elected officials get a raise," Letcher said. "It's tied into the state code. Our deputies barely make a living wage."

District 2 Commissioner Jim Hammons said, "We're tied into this. The only way for changes to occur would be if the state legislature does something."

With the cost of living increase, the commissioner's annual salary will be $65,166.43, as of July 1.

The commissioners accepted public comment at Monday's meeting as well as written comments.

About 110 were received with an overwhelming number — 100 — in support of the libraries and the formation of a district.

Those who commented by email included school-age students, parents of kids as well as older county residents.

"Please don't take the library," Linda Owen wrote in an email to county Clerk and Recorder Corrina Brown. "It is vital to me and has been vital to my children's education. Where has the money for the new addition to the library in Troy gone, too? I will gladly vote for a tax increase. I feel a personal and social responsibility to support the library."

Troy residents Rik and Diana Rewerts wrote, "As residents of Lincoln County for over 40 years, we have had many opportunities to utilize library services and have also witnessed the positive impact of the services for county residents.

"We regularly use the Libby library with our grandchildren. Also we use the Montana Shared catalog to order large print books for our 92-year-old mother. It's ability to function and provide services is essential to the health of the community."

Troy High School student Christina Hammer shared her thoughts on the library matter.

"I am writing in defense of the local library here in Troy, as I heard it could use all the support it can get right now. My visits to the library have been brief, but it has had an immeasurable impact on my life.

"Every time I visit the local library, I see families playing with their kids using Legos, a toy that costs fortunes. I see teenagers being able to enjoy the luxury of a computer. I see people returning DVDs that they could never possibly afford.

"For me? The library allows me to print papers. It seems like a small favor, but you have no idea how much it means to me. It allowed me to print papers that helped me further my education and to enroll in a dual-credit course when school facilities were unavailable. I was able to print papers that were quite literally required for my sister to get her driver's license here in Montana.

Hammer continued, "Either way, I mean it when I say closing the library is no better than putting a gun to the head of this town. You want to squash any local opportunity a kid has to pursue higher education. To kill any chance an impoverished family has at luxury? Then go ahead, pull the trigger."

Another Troy High School student, Sophia Wilson, wrote in an email to the commissioners, "The library has been a refuge, a safe haven, for countless people over the years. Many of those people are in abusive situations or have neglectful parents. The library is quiet, the library is warm, the library is safe. Even if we don't talk about the value of the books, its value as an institution is immeasurable.

"And now, let's talk about books. When I was younger, it wasn't unusual for me to return home with 8, 10, 13 different books on different subjects, I learned about carpentry and cake baking and the environment and poetry, all in the same room.

"Please, libraries aren't supposed to make money. They aren't supposed to be a business. The students of Troy High School stand with the library. Going forward, please try to keep all of this in mind," Wilson wrote.

One person, Evan Comella, wrote, "How about encouraging the Lincoln County Library system to seek more grants and donations from local people who value and utilize the library services to supplement their voted 3.49 mills rather than attempting to become a district and greatly increase the tax burden on all property owners?"

Letcher said he was concerned with the 13.49 mills.

"From some of the comments I've heard, it seems to be on the high side," Letcher said.

During the March 6 public hearing, Letcher 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 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.

County budget woes have been building for years.

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.