Statewide View: Something for everyone, but something everyone should have to pay for?
Patrons used to go to the library to check out books. Today, people go for any number of reasons. But while there's something for everyone at the 365 branch libraries across Minnesota, some events leave discerning taxpayers wondering whether it's...
Patrons used to go to the library to check out books. Today, people go for any number of reasons. But while there’s something for everyone at the 365 branch libraries across Minnesota, some events leave discerning taxpayers wondering whether it’s something for which everyone should pay.
Statewide, people have gone for the secret life of puppets (which cost $13,200 to put on), farmer comedian Roger Radley (at a cost of $9,154), stage combat demonstrations with sword fights and mock brawls ($608), duct tape wearables classes ($300) and a series on darkness ($3,816).
All are taxpayer-funded programs now commonplace in Minnesota libraries.
“We’re always evolving. Libraries have been around forever and books have been our brand, but it’s more that knowledge has been our brand. And that comes in all kinds of packages,” said Melinda Ludwiczak, who oversees arts and cultural programming for the Metropolitan Library Service Agency in the Twin Cities, the largest of 12 state regional library systems.
Six years after voters approved a .0375 percent Legacy Amendment sales tax increase for the arts and environment, a total of $20.5 million has been allocated for arts, culture, literary and Minnesota history programming through the state’s 12 regional library systems. State libraries receive
$3 million a year from the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Now, they want a 35 percent raise from lawmakers this session.
“We do have a request for funding for libraries again this year. We require reports regarding how the money is spent. After the ill-advised appropriation of $45,000 for one author in 2010, I believe that the libraries have been more careful in how and to whom money is granted,” Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, who chairs the House Legacy Funding Finance Committee, said in an email. The $45,000 fee went to best-selling author Neil Gaiman, who appeared in Stillwater.
Under the funding formula, the largest regional library, MELSA, receives $1.14 million from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. The 11 smaller library systems spend $75,000 to $261,000 annually on Legacy Amendment-funded activities.
But attendance for Legacy Amendment-funded library events remains flat, totaling 160,000 in 2014 compared to 165,000 in 2012, Minnesota Library Association figures show. Spread across 1,400 programs held last year, libraries spent an average of $18.75 per attendee at Legacy Amendment-funded activities.
“We’re looking at things that reflect our communities and that we’re being good stewards of a limited financial resource. We aren’t guaranteed this money. Every biennium we have to go in and request it at the Legislature,” Ludwiczak said.
That taxpayer money provided $4,982 so 24 participants could explore the history of Minnesota’s beer scene at the Lake Agassiz Regional Library branches. It provided $2,864 so 67 participants over seven workshops in the Viking Library System could learn how to make decorative accordion books. For $273, 13 knowledge-starved Traverse des Sioux Regional Library system attendees learned “proper ways to cook and serve meat.”
In Northeastern Minnesota’s Arrowhead Library System, $101,183 of Legacy Amendment money was spent so 8,800 patrons could attend regional museums and their events.
“The museum pass was very popular and helped build some important relationships between our libraries and the museum venues in our area,” Jim Weikum, Arrowhead Regional Library director, said in an email.
A 2011 posting on the Great River Regional Library website urges constituents to lobby legislators for continued funding.
“I’m just astonished at what people have come up with on their own to use Legacy dollars, often at very small costs,” Peg Werner, director of the Viking Library System, said. “They’re bringing together their communities to see what they’re about. It’s an amazing program.”
Libraries must report spending, attendance and outcomes on a state Legacy Fund website. A spotcheck of the system by the Watchdog Minnesota Bureau found a lack of detail in some reports - and one significant error.
“Oversight and transparency is an ongoing concern, and we will continue to monitor it as far as library funding is concerned,” Urdahl said.
The state website shows that a May 2014 Traverse des Sioux Library event called Karate 101 cost $10,046 and attracted just four participants. When notified by Watchdog Minnesota Bureau, the instructor confirmed only a handful showed up for her class yet was astounded at her supposed payment.
“I was paid $800 for workshops, and for mileage (232 miles round trip at $.56 per mile) I was paid $129.92. So the total payment to me was $929.92,” said Mary Brandl, an instructor and consultant with the Minneapolis Community Crime Prevention/SAFE Program. “I … am totally mystified.”
Library advocates hope to leverage the public response to a popular coordinated statewide reading program based on the award-winning children’s book “Moo!” in their drive for increased funding.
“That one has a lot of legs and a lot of input from librarians around the state and how they wanted that program to play out,” Ludwiczak said. “And so it’s been really successful. Kids have been really excited about it.”
It’s quite a contrast with the first year of programming when no one showed up for several youth-oriented events featuring renowned Guthrie Theater actors. A total of 229 attended 32 Guthrie programs at Great River Regional Libraries in 2010 at a cost of $12,903.45.
But they set the stage for future acts like Sean Emery, the comedian juggler, who drew 580 attendees for 14 presentations of “comedic educational juggling” at a comparable bargain: $10,578.
Tom Steward of Chanhassen writes about government waste, spending and policy issues for Watchdog.org. A documentary filmmaker and broadcast journalist, his work has appeared on National Public Radio and Animal Planet, among other outlets. Steward once served as a communications strategist in the U.S. Senate.