By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
LAKE ELMO, Minn. — You won’t find it on the shelf among the best sellers, but it’s an inspiring tale.
It’s a story of how little Lake Elmo took control of its local library, a story about taxpayers standing up against government and emerging victorious.
“Our programs are excellent, we’ve got lots of things going on, none of which would exist if we didn’t have a library here,” said Steve DeLapp, a retired architect who helped mobilize opposition. “We don’t want anything to do with Woodbury, we don’t want anything to do with Oakdale. If we did, we’d live there. We live in Lake Elmo, we want our library.”
The plot revolves around a 2011 decision by Washington County Library System to streamline operations by shuttering three small branch libraries, including Lake Elmo, with a population of about 8,000. Without the benefit of the 50-year-old local library, taxpayers in the St. Paul suburb objected to paying more than $250,000 in library taxes to the county each year.
“We have high property level assessments in Lake Elmo, and they wanted our money,” said DeLapp. “But they wanted to take away our library, which was the very first one in the Washington County system.”
The Lake Elmo City Council took the unusual step of seceding from the county system and keeping the tax money to branch out on its own. The city bought a 7,000-square foot foreclosed building downtown. But the town couldn’t afford to hire a librarian, relying instead on volunteers to begin stocking and operating the facility from scratch.
“We’re trying not to take a look at it in terms of confrontation,” said Dean Zuleger, city administrator of Lake Elmo. “It’s just a difference of opinion on what folks wanted from a library in Lake Elmo and it looks as if, in this case, our perspective prevailed.”
Some two years later, Lake Elmo’s decision to go it alone still rankles county officials. “I really don’t know much. We all seem to be moving ahead,” said Pat Conley, director at Washington County Library. “… I really don’t have much to say about it at this point.”
While unable to compete with county branch libraries in overall resources, Lake Elmo strives to be user-friendly. The city offers free library cards to residents and non-residents alike, growing to more than 1,300 registered users. When Washington County more than doubled the cost of a card to county libraries system, the city doubled down, too.
Lake Elmo reimburses the $60 annual fee for more than 500 local holders of Washington County Library cards, at an annual cost of $35,000.
“If we don’t have a book, we’ll buy it for them on two-day Amazon quick-ship,” said DeLapp, a regular volunteer. “It is cheaper for us to do that than for a person to go through the county book transfer system. It costs more to do that than for us to buy it new from Amazon and have it shipped.”
Under local control, the Lake Elmo library has already paid off a $240,000 mortgage, freeing up $120,000 a year for much-needed books, e-books and other additions to its collection. Residents find library doors open more often and an increase in the number of programs and meetings held there.
The surest sign of progress came when Lake Elmo recently hired a full-time librarian.
“I think we’re doing very well. We have a steady customer group, a group of users,” said Linda Orsted, director for the Lake Elmo Library. “We seem to be making them happy with the materials we’re supplying, so I think it’s a success story.”
It may be premature to assume a happy ending. Ultimately, the outcome depends on a continuing commitment of the community and volunteer corps of 80.
“We’ll battle over who was right or wrong, but the success is people are reading and kids are reading,” said Zuleger, the city administrator. “… We might have missed the opportunity to work with each other. But there’s a win here and the win is the library’s successful.”
Contact Tom Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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