Other counties’ library bills hound local facilities

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Circulation down, program attendance up at county libraries

A state provision that allows consolidated county library systems to bill adjoining counties for items their residents borrow continues to be a headache for Oconto County, which got a $105,000 bill from Brown County last year.

It’s a question of geography, says Joan Denis, director of the Oconto Falls Community Library. When someone from towns such as Little Suamico, Chase or Morgan want to go to the library, it’s more convenient for them to go to the Brown County library in Howard or Green Bay than to head north.

A bill signed by then-Gov. Jim Doyle in 2006 gives Brown County the right to bill adjacent counties that don’t have their own consolidated system. The six community libraries in Oconto County — in Oconto, Oconto Falls, Gillett, Suring, Lena and Lakewood — are independent of each other.

“That money comes out of the county funding,” Denis said, “so the northern part of the county is paying just as much as people in Little Suamico, Chase or Morgan.”

Langlade County has also gotten into the act, billing Oconto County about $1,000 last year for northern users who borrowed from the Antigo library.

The libraries have done what they can to encourage residents to use their municipal libraries. Lena Public Library ran a series of Facebook ads this spring noting the $105,000 bill from Brown County.

The law generated some discussion at the June 22 Oconto County Board meeting, when Administrative Coordinator Kevin Hamann presented the libraries’ annual report for 2016.

Hamann said when the law first changed, the charge was closer to $125,000, then dipped to around $98,000 before starting to climb again.

“The number of checkouts has gone down, so our message is getting out, but the cost of doing business has gone up; the cost per checkout has increased,” said County Clerk Kim Pytleski, who receives the bills from other counties.

“That cost hasn’t been eliminated, it’s been reduced somewhat, but it’s more than it should be,” Supervisor Alan Sleeter, of Suring, said. “And I’m not sure how that could be corrected other than a change in attitude in Madison.”

The other alternative would be for the six libraries to merge, but that’s not popular with the municipalities, Hamann said.

“They would lose their local control, and it would simply be run by the county,” Hamann noted.

“Every year we do talk about whether to form a consolidated county library, but we each value our independence,” Denis said.

She added it might eventually become financially necessary.

Among other highlights of the libraries’ annual report was a 10.8 percent drop in the number of registered borrowers, but Hamann said that was mostly the result of a directive to bring records up-to-date.

“Circulation is down, but program attendance is way up,” Hamann said. “What’s happening at the libraries is that when people go to the library, they’re less likely to check out a book now or something, they go to the library more to the programs there at night or during the day. Libraries are becoming more of a community event than somewhere to go to check out a book.”

There is also a strong interest in using the computers at the libraries, as well as Wi-Fi, he said. Total attendance at programs across the six libraries increased 24.9 percent from 2015 to 2016, and users of their public wireless connections was up 34.7 percent.

“They’re spending less on acquiring books, but they’re spending more money on programs, more money on e-books, more money on computers,” Hamann said.