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Libraries wary of merger proposal

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Johnson County’s three library districts continue to look for ways to cooperate but want to stay separate because they don’t think combining would save money and want to keep more local people involved in running the branches.

Library directors said combining the county’s three library districts into one might increase some costs. And if Greenwood and Edinburgh were added to the county district, those libraries no longer would have community residents overseeing spending and management.

A state report released in late 2007 suggested consolidation of library districts and other local governments, such as townships, as a way to save taxpayers money and increase service.

That report, created by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, recommended creating a single countywide library district in each of Indiana’s 92 counties. The consolidation would reduce administrative costs of running libraries and expand library service to rural areas, the report said.

But the state never mandated any type of library consolidation. Johnson County library directors discussed the idea but decided it was not necessary. Consolidation wouldn’t save money, wouldn’t noticeably improve service and wouldn’t benefit the individual communities, library officials said.

The main reason to consolidate government is to save taxpayers money, but library directors don’t think combining their districts would reduce spending.

“On the surface it seems like a feasible idea. They think it’s going to save money,” Johnson County Public Library director Beverly Martin said.

In the 1960s, the county had three smaller library districts in Greenwood, Franklin and Edinburgh. But residents in White River Township and the New Whiteland/Whiteland area wanted library service after being served primarily by bookmobiles.

At that time, Franklin chose to expand to cover those areas, leading to the Johnson County district that now covers most of the county, Martin said.

In recent years, libraries have cut spending because they receive less tax revenue. In 2012, Greenwood had to lay off 25 percent of its staff, reduce the amount of time the library was open on weekends and stop buying new books because of funding shortfalls.

This year, Johnson County chose not to replace retiring librarians and combined duties of some positions, reducing staff costs by about $100,000. Edinburgh’s branch is run by five people, and director Cathy Hamm doesn’t think it could be open 54 hours a week with any fewer, she said.

Combining districts wouldn’t save money on facilities since no branches would be closed, and some costs for new materials, such as books, DVDs, software and database access, could increase if the libraries were to combine, Martin said.

For example, certain databases used by Johnson County are billed by the number of people in the district, which means those costs would go up if the county added Greenwood and Edinburgh, she said.

“If there’s not a financial reason to do it, why tear it apart and put it back together?” said Cheryl Dobbs, director of the Greenwood Public Library.

Local libraries would either need to see a significant cost savings or a way to vastly improve services to consider consolidation in the future, Martin said. Instead the three districts are working on more ways to cooperate, such as a countywide reading program or teen film festival.

Library directors said combining the districts would not have a major effect on services. People going to a library district other than the one they live in can do just about everything, such as use computers and attend programs, just not check out books.

Residents can pay for a statewide library card or a nonresident card in any of the three districts. And the libraries lend items to each other when residents want them.

Consolidation could bring a service such as e-book rentals to Edinburgh, which doesn’t have it. But Edinburgh doesn’t have e-books now mainly because residents haven’t shown a large interest in them, Hamm said. And residents who do want e-books can get them from Bartholomew County libraries, she said.

Having separate library districts allows Greenwood and Edinburgh to maintain their own community identity and have local residents directly in control of the branches.

For example, schools and councils in Greenwood and Edinburgh appoint board members to oversee the libraries. But if those branches were combined with the county district, board members would be appointed by county officials.

Libraries are a community hub and represent local tradition and community history, similar to post offices or schools, Martin said.

The libraries haven’t gotten requests from residents who want the districts to merge. Instead, library users have been more focused on expanding service, such as establishing a branch in Bargersville, Martin said.

“Anything can be done. I don’t mean to say it’s impossible, but where is the impetus? Bottom line, our patrons are served,” Martin said.

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