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St. Croix librarians lobby for more rural funding

Arguing for fairness and that more money would mean more resources for people looking for jobs or inexpensive entertainment, librarians are asking St. Croix County to raise its library tax.

The county's Finance Committee listened to discussion last week but took no action and will instead forward the matter to the full County Board during a preliminary 2010 budget presentation Sept. 22.

While property owners living in cities or villages with a library support the service through taxes they pay to their municipality, state law requires counties to levy a separate tax on rural property. That tax must cover at least 70 percent of the cost of rural circulation. In St. Croix County it currently covers 71 percent.

At the current tax rate, the owner of a $200,000 home in a rural area pays a library tax of $37 per year. If the county raised the tax to cover 100 percent of operating costs, the tax would be $52 a year.

"We're not looking to make any money on this," said New Richmond Alderman Jim Zajkowski. "We just want everybody to pay their fair share."

New Richmond Library Director Scott Vrieze said residents of his city pay nearly 72 percent of the cost of operating the city's public library, but use of the library is divided almost equally between city residents and non-city residents.

Other libraries in the county see similar patterns, said Vrieze.

"It's our belief that we are paying our fair share," responded Richard Berquist, a member of the Richmond Town Board.

There's a reason the 70/30 split is written into state law, said Berquist. He said a former state legislator explained that in the late 1990s lawmakers felt rural areas didn't have the same tax base as cities and villages, which have businesses and industries.

In most cities, 40 percent of the real estate tax bill is paid by businesses, said Berquist.

"We don't see that anything has changed (since the legislation was adopted)," he said. "We don't have a Main Street. We don't have an industrial park."

But the town of Richmond has a higher per capita equalized valuation than the city of New Richmond, responded New Richmond Alderman Fred Horne, who is also a County Board member.

"Per capita, they have more money," he said.

Libraries draw people to cities to do other business, and city residents have a say in library operations while rural residents don't, said Berquist.

"We don't own the library," he said. "We just participate."

State law allows cities to appoint up to two non-residents to their library boards, and many libraries already do that, responded Horne.

"Our library is booming, especially with the economy," said Roberts Library Director Brenda Hackman. She said people tend to borrow more books, videos and computer materials from libraries during tough economic times.

With more money, the libraries could provide more services, she said.

Unemployed or underemployed people especially need library computer resources to search for jobs and learn new skills, added Horne.

"All we are asking is pay for the services you are using," he said.