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Updated: Wednesday, 10 Oct 2012, 5:47 PM CDT
Published : Wednesday, 10 Oct 2012, 7:46 AM CDT
GREEN BAY - There's a border battle brewing between Brown County and its surrounding neighbors. It has to do with the cost of checking out library books. And at least one county is fighting back.
The Brown County Library with its eight branches is the largest in Northeast Wisconsin. More than two and a half million books and other materials were checked out last year.
But not all of those flashing a library card live in Brown County.
"I'm closer to the one in Wrightstown," said Willy Heindel, who lives in the Town of Kaukauna, just across the border in Outagamie County.
But he's less than a mile from Brown County's Wrightstown Library so he oftentimes goes there.
Crossing county borders to check out books from another library is perfectly legal. Only this year Brown County decided it needed to be paid for providing its services to other counties' residents.
Five adjacent counties--Outagamie, Oconto, Manitowoc, Kewaunee, and Calumet--were sent bills this year totaling more than $251,000.
"I completely understand people are upset about this," explained Brown County Library director Lynn Stainbrook.
But Stainbrook says she needs the money in order to keep her libraries open next year.
"Either we'd be closing branches down in order to stay at the levy limit the county executive has asked us to be or there would be an increase in taxes to try and keep the branches open," said Stainbrook.
Oconto County received the largest bill totaling $125,913. Right in the middle is Outagamie County with a bill of $33,281.
"Well I understand why Brown County would charge adjoining counties for serving their residents but in the case between Outagamie and Brown County there's really no inequity that needs to be addressed," said Rick Krumwiede, director of the Outagamie Waupaca Library System.
In fact Outagamie County officials maintain its libraries serve more Brown County residents than the other way around. So it asked Brown County to withdraw its bill. That request was denied.
The Outagamie Waupaca Library System decided to highlight the inequity in all this by sending Brown County a bill of its own. It sent the county a letter highlighting the cost of Brown County residents using Outagamie County libraries. The total cost is more than $60,000. (While the figure is nearly double what Brown County is charging, the number of materials is not. The reason for the higher charge is costs in Outagamie County are higher.)
And what do OWLS officials expect Brown County to do with that bill?
"Well statutorily they're not required to pay it," admitted Krumwiede. "There's an anomaly in the law where a consolidated county library like Brown County can bill adjacent counties but they're not required to pay when adjacent counties bill them."
That law was passed in the state legislature back in 2006. Only 11 counties in the state have consolidated county libraries and can take advantage of the law. Up until this year only La Crosse, Langlade and Rusk counties charged adjacent counties.
It is interesting to note that the law in place to allow Brown County to charge Outagamie County was actually put into place when Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson was in the legislature.
"I was, I was. And I went back to look at the history of that and it passed both houses unanimously," said Nelson of the legislation.
But now as Outagamie County Executive he says the law was well-intentioned but shouldn't apply between Brown and Outagamie counties.
"The bigger picture is very clear. We're loaning about 19,000 materials to Brown County and Brown County is loaning about 17,000 materials to Outagamie County," said Nelson.
The reimbursement works the same as an existing law within individual counties.
Appleton residents for example pay taxes to maintain and operate the city library. Appleton also charges Outagamie County to cover materials loaned to residents not within a library district.
Outagamie County has a deal in place which actually pays more than what is required by law to all four libraries in the county--one each in Appleton, Kaukauna, Little Chute and Seymour.
Outagamie County taxpayers will pay $1.6 million next year for library services.
"Don't get me wrong they may be paying taxes but they're paying taxes to reimburse a usage they're not paying that on-going maintenance cost of a library, the capital expenditures the technology infrastructure, the operating expenditures they're not paying that on a regular basis," said Stainbrook.
That brings us back to the $33,281 bill from Brown County. It's not clear if Outagamie County will raise taxes or cut budgets to cover the cost. Nelson is holding out hope for a compromise.
Nelson says he is requesting more discussion between both sides, and hopes it doesn't come down to having to take other measures.
But the Outagamie Waupaca Library Board has voted to recommend discontinuing service to Brown County residents if the bill is not withdrawn by the end of the year.
We asked Appleton Library director Colleen
Rortvedt if turning away library patrons would be hard to do.
"It will be awful, be terrible, it would be most difficult for the staff on the front lines. It would be the worst thing ever," said Rortvedt.
"If these libraries wanted to say we can't use their libraries, you know there are intra system agreements that have been in place for a long time that they would be voiding," said Stainbrook. "But, more business for us in Brown County."
Brown County officials point out since it took a while to get the right software in place to accurately log who is checking out the books, neighboring counties have saved more than $1 million. But the grace period is over and the bills will likely continue in the years ahead.
Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach points out to avoid charges in the future Outagamie and the other counties could implement a county consolidated library system like Brown County.