Analisa Romano
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February 8, 2014
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Library system in Weld County angers small towns

A philosophical objection has emerged among Weld County’s libraries and their towns that Weld residents have heard before — that big cities are taking away the right of smaller, rural towns to decide for themselves how to live.

A clash over how High Plains Library District should be run has boiled to the surface in the past year, and some town mayors say they will consider legal action or seek to completely dissolve the district if the problem isn’t solved.

Leaders with High Plains, the umbrella district that provides basic services to all libraries in Weld County, say that as technology continues to change, it is more cost-effective to offer the same services in every library.

But town leaders in Ault, Eaton, Fort Lupton and elsewhere say they want to keep autonomy over their own library boards, which allocate most of their funding and decide on many of the services offered to their patrons. They argue their communities and libraries have different needs, while High Plains officials say offering services a la carte is an inefficient use of taxpayer money.

The disagreement culminated this fall with a convoluted nomination process for a vacant seat on the High Plains Board of Directors.

That seat was supposed to be filled by now, but town and community officials are pushing for a change to the nomination process as well as radical changes in how High Plains officials are managing the district.

Patrons probably haven’t noticed anything in the way of receiving their normal library services — the friction has largely been behind the scenes.

Janine Reid, executive director of High Plains Library District, said town officials are incensed by the idea of allowing High Plains to take over more operations. Yet, she said there have been few objections to the actual services or standards that High Plains hopes to implement. When there are objections, she said High Plains works out a compromise that satisfies everyone at the table.

“It’s not about library service,” Reid said. “It’s about power and control.”

A funky formation

In 1985, seven communities — Ault, Eaton, Hudson, Greeley, Fort Lupton, Fort Lupton Re-8 School District, and Weld County — came together to form High Plains Library District.

The intent was to allow each of the founding members to have a library board with local control. They decided the district would keep one third of the property taxes collected in each member’s service area, and the remainder of the money would be allocated by the local library boards.

Since 1985, additional communities have stepped in as “member” libraries with their own boards. Today, Ault, Eaton, Platteville, Fort Lupton, Hudson and Johnstown are all member libraries, and their service areas follow the same boundaries as their school districts.

Those library boards each deal with different budgets, which resulted in discrepancies from town to town in things like renewal limitations, computer availability and charges for printing.

The other libraries across the county — including the three in Greeley and libraries in Kersey, Firestone, Erie and the book mobile — are branch libraries. They are fully operated by High Plains, and rely solely on the district’s pooled funding.

Over the years, High Plains has slowly taken over some services when new technologies come up, Reid said. For example, when Wi-Fi was introduced, the district provided Wi-Fi to all libraries because of too many security breaches when each library handled Wi-Fi on its own. Other services taken over by the district, such as courier services, vary depending on the library.

“It’s just gotten really disjointed,” Reid said.

This year, the district needs a new software system, which brought up the opportunity to address the service discrepancies, Reid said.

She said it was also an opportunity to more clearly define the district’s role in providing services.

High Plains came up with two options for member libraries: either they could accept the new software along with a new set of guidelines on how to use it and the services to be provided, or they could choose to forgo the new software and take complete control over their own library operations.

Either way, the district would still keep its one-third share of revenue, per the 1985 agreement.

Officials with member libraries said they feel the district is dominating the other libraries and completely disregarding the original intent of the library district, which was to maximize the number of materials and other resources that could be offered across the county by pooling financial assets.

“The district is going for efficiency, but at the expense of collaboration,” said Janice Fisher-Giles, director of the Fort Lupton Public and School Library. “It’s a difference of opinion in what decisions should be made at which levels.”

Ault Mayor Gary “Butch” White said it feels as though power is being consolidated in the High Plains administrative offices in Greeley.

“Any more, it’s their way or the highway,” White said.

Varying revenue

Further complicating the matter is the difference in property tax revenues in Weld County, where prolific oil and gas activity has bolstered some town coffers without affecting others at all.

Greeley was a member library, but gave up control to High Plains years ago, Reid said. She said she’s been hoping to encourage other communities to do the same to equalize the funding that goes toward each library.

The service areas for the Fort Lupton and Johnstown libraries each serve about 15,000 people, Reid said, but the Johnstown library got $354,000 to use this year, compared to the Fort Lupton library’s share of $1.1 million, thanks to oil and gas activity in that area.

Ault has a service area of about 8,000 people and will have about $352,000 to use this year, while Hudson, which serves about 12,000 people, has about $1 million.

Fort Lupton Mayor Tom Holton said he gets the sense that High Plains is simply after the revenue of those high-producing towns.

“Every library is unique and has different needs,” Holton said. “High Plains does not know the needs of the city of Fort Lupton.”

Eaton Mayor Scott Moser said the town is prepared to spend money on an attorney to get the library district back to the way it once operated. If nothing does change, he said the district may have to be dissolved.

White said there is only one way he sees the library district could change.

“I feel the High Plains Library Board needs to be overturned, and a new board put in place,” White said.

Those events brought leaders of every High Plains library to a meeting last week, in which Weld County commissioners mediated a discussion between the district and member libraries.

The group of about 40 library officials formed three subcommittees to work on their issues with High Plains, including one on how to improve communication between the district, member libraries and towns, one on improving library and community engagement when large changes come up, and one that examines how to change the district’s bylaws.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of people in this county that are just flat-out ticked off,” Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer told district officials at the Thursday meeting.

One woman at the meeting said her patrons don’t want all of the services that High Plains offers, such as self-checkout.

But Reid in a later interview said about 90 percent of all checkouts in the district are automated. She said it doesn’t eliminate jobs, but frees up library personnel to help patrons with using the computer or research.

“I felt like I was providing the facts, and her reaction was that it was all about top-down management,” Reid said of the woman’s comment in the meeting.

A call to cooperate

Earlier this month, High Plains Trustee Karen Rademacher, who represents the Erie, Frederick and Firestone areas on the board, read a statement at a regular board meeting.

Rademacher said she feels the original intent of the library district is not to have the district overtake local libraries, but she said the new software and other changes would be to everyone’s benefit.

“No one has brought to my attention an inappropriate service that should be removed,” she said.

When High Plains was founded in 1985, it was the first of its kind to follow a new state law that allowed such a formation. Two years later, the law was changed to eliminate member libraries, Rademacher said.

“It seems like it was immediately recognized that this system was destined to be dysfunctional,” she said. “I appreciate that it’s a bummer when you don’t get to decide what government services you get for yourself. But it is not the purpose of this district to provide cafeteria-style library services to the member libraries.”

Rademacher said there are valid concerns over renewals and other charges that affect each library’s budget. But she said it’s no reason to nix cooperation.

“I really hope that the member libraries come along for the ride,” she said.


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My Windsor Now Updated Feb 7, 2014 11:52PM Published Feb 11, 2014 04:55AM Copyright 2014 My Windsor Now. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.