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Board hears case for closing library, suggestions for saving it

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Southside Library

La Crosse City Council member Sara Sullivan, right, speaks at a press conference about trying to save the South Community Library Monday afternoon. Erik Daily

The La Crosse Public Library director Monday defended the recent recommendation to close one of the city’s branch sites as the only realistic option to offset a deep budget deficit, even as she described the decision as akin to “choosing which child you love best.”

After years of cutting other areas, those who oversee the city’s libraries simply could not justify reducing overall services to the point needed to keep both branches in operation, Kelly Krieg-Sigman told the city’s Board of Estimates.

So Krieg-Sigman, with the library board’s approval Thursday, presented a 2014 budget that calls for closing the South Community Library at 1307 16th St. S.

Eliminating the site would save an estimated $161,704 to help offset a predicted $268,258 shortfall for 2014, Krieg-Sigman said.

She blamed a combination of rising expenses, shrinking revenues and steady annual budget cuts for forcing the library board to recommend shutting down the south branch, which has been in operation since 1922 and at the current site since 1952.

The library has compensated in recent years by dipping into its reserves, but Krieg-Sigman said using those funds to keep the south branch running would all but drain an account designed to cover unanticipated expenses, not operating costs.

Just reducing hours at the south and north branch sites would confuse the public, force programs to be cut and diminish the libraries to “little more than book kiosks,” Krieg-Sigman said.

The flagship library at 800 Main St. already cut staff and hours for the 2013 budget and cannot sustain further reductions without crippling its level of service, Krieg-Sigman said.

The library board didn’t get the target numbers for the 2014 budget until mid-August, Krieg-Sigman said, leaving no time for fundraising, appeals to the public or searching for grant money, which normally can’t be used for operating costs anyway.

While she appreciates the public’s attachment to the library, “although we thrive on love,” Krieg-Sigman said, “we cannot live on it.”

But council member Peg Jerome, whose District 10 includes the south branch, was skeptical Krieg-Sigman and the library board had looked at all other alternatives before suggesting such a drastic step.

She noted at least three items in the library budget where the amount requested seemed to significantly exceed what was used in the current year.

When Krieg-Sigman explained that little extra is needed for the unexpected, Jerome pointed out that was the rationale for having the reserve funds.

Krieg-Sigman also acknowledged they had not pursued perhaps turning to library endowments such as the Washburn Fund for help. It has about $320,000 and a special trustee fund more than $1 million, she said, but policy has been not to use the money for operating costs.

“I think it’s time” to reconsider that policy, council member Audrey Kader said.

Mayor Tim Kabat proposed city officials meet with the library board to look over the budget, potential funding sources and any other options to keep the South Community Library open.

Kabat already had said he wants to fund the branch for 2014 so the city has more time to look for a longer-term solution.

“I just don’t think closing a branch is an option,” Kabat said after the meeting.

Earlier in the day, more than 50 people gathered in front of the south library in support of keeping it open.

Among them was Nikole Hale and her six children, the library’s current Family of the Year. They live just up the street.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Helen, said the south branch offers her “a steady book supply.”

“I really like to read,” Helen Hale said, “so having new books close by is really a plus.”

Mother and daughter said it’s unlikely they would be able to visit the main library downtown as often if the branch site closed.

Council member Sara Sullivan, the chairwoman of the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Commission who organized the rally, said she was troubled by the prospect of losing the longtime South Side fixture.

“It’s not just the library at stake here,” Sullivan said. “It’s the whole neighborhood.”

All hoped a solution could be found that can keep the door open.

“It has to,” Jerome said. “It just has to.”

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