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Northfield City Council Meeting - May 8, 2012

May 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm
By Jane McWilliams

Library Board Discussion: Library Director Lynne Young and board members Hans Muessig, Charlotte Carlson and Adam Gurno, met with the council to talk about short and long-term library issues. Included in the packet was their 2012 work plan. Mayor Mary Rossing asked whether they were looking for specific direction. Board Chair Hans Muessig noting that library expansion is on the city’s capital improvement plan asked whether that is something the board should be working on. He add that the board doesn’t want to start serious space planning until they know when the council intends to move on library facility decisions. Mayor Rossing responded that it was clear that the safety center took priority and needed to be done before the library expansion. Although the safety center was on the CIP for 2009, extenuating circumstances have delayed it. She said in the next few months the council would be having conversations, which should clarify the future of CIP planning.

Much of the rest of the conversation focused on the future of libraries in the 21st century, and on some of the ways our library is responding to change. Vice Chair Charlotte Carlson said they want to be ready when time comes to talk about bricks and mortar. Mr. Muessig mentioned work he is doing in Minnesota to explore the relationship of digital literacy and economic vitality and that libraries are a part of this conversations in the state and nationally.

Ms. Young said her philosophy is that the library should respond to community needs. An example is the job search resource, which the library created in communication with the Northfield Enterprise Center and the city’s Economic Development Authority. The library has consulted with librarians in the Northfield Public Schools about ways to cooperate, and with the district’s IT staff about the implications for the library of every student having an Ipad. While there is a demand in the community for Ebooks, the library is limited because most publishers don’t publish them; others won’t permit them in libraries, and those, which do put a limit on how often they may be checked out. Mr. Gurno added that patrons need tech support and that responsibility falls on the library. Mayor Rossing said that what the library thinks it can do best for citizens may not be what others think it is. She said the council would be open to a focused approach. The council had no comments on the board’s 2012 work plan.

To see the library’s concise and informative “A Day in the Life of the Northfield Library”: http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/2/2011-Annual-Report---ly-lw1.pdf

According to Ms. Young, this was designed by Kathy Ness, and refined by Young and Leesa Wisdorf, using numbers from the annual report the library submits to the state. Of interest, too, is the extensive December 2011 consulting report for the Minnesota Department of Education, “Minnesota Public Libraries’ Return on Investment."

Debt Study:  Mark Ruff, representing the city’s financial consulting firm Ehlers & Associates, reviewed an updated debt study. As the report notes, the ability to incur debt is an important finance tool for the city, which may issue bonds to build public improvements, acquire capital equipment, construct public facilities and meet development needs. The study is part of the overall financial management strategy. Debt can be restructured in order to alter the demands on municipal revenues it creates. This may free up funds for other purposes. In order to plan for future capital improvements, existing debt must be considered. The report made recommendations for debt management, including adoption of a debt policy. These will be taken into account as the council deliberates on the funding future bond issues for such projects as the safety center and continued street reconstruction and improvement.

2012/2013 Budget Process & LGA Policy:  City Administrator Tim Madigan provided a calendar for the 2012 budget process. A first step was the analysis by departments done earlier this year showing the impact of no state local government aid.  (Since 2009, the council has had a goal to “ . . . maintain and improve city operations without state support”.)  Mr. Madigan at this meeting said that there is more stability in LGA funding and further reduction in LGA dependence is not needed at this time. His recommended:  taking no action to reduce public services; continuing to examine cost cutting opportunities; continuing to build cash reserves when possible; and following up on recommendations from the Ad Hoc Finance Study Group.

With this more stable situation, councilors agreed that the budgeting process would be done in a less strained atmosphere than earlier. However, Councilor Rhonda Pownell expressed reluctance to cease planning for loss of LGA, but also was reluctant to set a revised goal for reducing reliance (currently $500,000 per year). Council Ivan Imm said the city is seeing the results of reduction in staff – for example the poor condition of the park across the street from his home. Ms. McBride said the way the staff is stretched and it is not sustainable.

Councilor Betsey Buckheit noted that it would have been easier to make the needed cuts had the council had a firmer planning policy in place beforehand. We should treat LGA as an unpredictable or unreliable revenue source, not a core of our revenue. Council Zweifel agreed. She is concerned about staffing levels. Where does Mr. Madigan does he see we need to add back in to get the most bang for our buck?  We need to have that list ready. Councilor Suzie Nakasian would like to combine this with the economic development planning and initiatives. Councilor Pownell asked whether the budget process should include the goals of the boards and commissions, especially the Park and Recreation Advisory Board and Housing and Redevelopment Authority, both of which have projects they’re working on. Councilor Ganey said because with the exception of the EDA which has levying authority, they don’t have budgets, so it important to hear from them. But we should be giving them direction. We should look at potential projects they’re working on which have implications for the budget. An example is the issue of the skateboard park, suggested Mayor Rossing. Councilor Imm, reminded of Ms. McBride’s suggestion that we have more parks than we can maintain, said perhaps we should communicate with the park board about this.

Mayor Rossing said we need to make a clear statement of our policy and a commitment to alternative sources of revenue. She added that the council needs to respond to Mr. Madigan’s recommendations so that it has ownership over the process. Having heard the council’s comments Mr. Madigan said he would draft a proposed policy for their consideration. According to the budget calendar, at the June 12 work session, the council will review budget goals and parameters.

Comments: In the spirit of full disclosure, I was only able to attend part of the meeting. I subsequently watched the archived streamed version on KYMN once it was available on Thursday. This report is a product of both real and virtual observations.

While planning for the safety center has been in process since 2009, the library has been working on planning since 2005. That year, Robert H. Rohlf Associates prepared a needs assessment and building program and Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle evaluated the current library building. (To see the report: http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/n/Northfield-ReportRev.5.2.06-reduced1.pdf )

Since that time, a number of other studies have been done, including a 2010 capital campaign study (http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/l/LS-Final-Report-6.9.10.pdf ).

That study made recommendations to the library for preparing for a capital campaign, which, in this reader’s view, the board and staff have since methodically put into play.

Several councils have struggled to come to a decision about how to move forward on the safety center. Although finally this year, this council decided to build a police facility and fix up the present one for the fire trucks, it will likely be a year before the community will see tangible results.

In the meantime, library board, friends and staff have been at work coping with the present while planning for the future. As the Day in the Life report illustrates, the library is experiencing impressive use. As was clear from the discussion at this meeting, library planning is challenging because of the changing nature of libraries in the 21st century, a result of the technological explosion. The work Rohlf Associates did five years ago may be somewhat obsolete now! Not knowing when an expansion of the present library might be possible makes knowing what to plan for almost impossible. Thus, Mr. Muessig’s plea that the council give the library board guidance, so, as Ms Carlson said, the library plans will be ready when it comes time to talk abut bricks and mortar.

One has to admire the diligent and patient work the board and staff have done all these years with no firm notion of when or if their plans will be realized. The council needs to move forward on the safety center. Equally important, it must do serious long range planning for capital improvements, including, and especially, planning for the library facility.

Comments

  • May 14 2012 at 7:24 am
    kiffi summa

    Although I no longer do council observing for the LWV, I watch the program in its live stream version. It continues to amaze me that with the number and depth of comments from each Council member, these never get 'morphed' into a full blown discussion that results in a base policy. I think the policy writing job is that of the Council, not the Administration. The Council must write its own policy, not respond to the Administrator's , as disagreement with his version would put them into direct conflict, which the Council is loathe to do with its senior staff employees. The issue of the long planned for library expansion is simply frustrating, as the library continues to expand its service to area residents, while all the time having its budgets cut... and unfairly in my opinion ... as they are certainly one of the most, if not THE most, effective and productive departments of the City. The Council could certainly find the dollars to get Booker back on the road...

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