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CLN board adopts budget; votes to close Sundays

by DEVIN WEEKS and KAYE THORNBRUGH/Staff Writers
| August 20, 2023 1:09 AM

POST FALLS — Last week was another busy one for Community Library Network trustees.

The five-member board adopted a draft budget for fiscal year 2024, voted to close all branches on Sundays, changed a policy in order to give trustees more financial control, debated changes to how the network chooses new materials for its collections and considered disaffiliating from the American Library Association.

Trustees made the decisions during two meetings that occurred over six hours Thursday and Friday.

The Community Library Network is a taxing district comprising all public libraries in Kootenai County other than the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, which is a city entity. The library network also includes the Pinehurst Library.

FY2024 budget

The board voted 3-1 Friday to adopt the $8.4 million draft budget for fiscal year 2024.

Trustees Katie Blank, Vanessa Robinson and Tom Hanley voted in favor of the draft budget, while Tim Plass voted against it. Board chair Rachelle Ottosen did not vote.

“If we realize savings from reduced hours in the future, then there’s nothing stopping us from applying that money to some other line item on the budget,” Hanley said. “That’s my reason for planning to go forward and adopting the budget.”

The draft budget, which includes $2.4 million in reserve, will not be supported by increased property taxes. Instead, the budget will be balanced through cuts to programming, materials collections and some operating expenses.

Though the library network is entitled to $42,256 from the closure of two urban renewal districts in Post Falls, the board majority appears poised to reject the funds.

Len Crosby, a Post Falls Urban Renewal Agency commissioner, said in an email to library director Alexa Eccles that it would be fiscally irresponsible for library trustees to refuse the money.

“Rejecting these funds will not result in any gain to the taxpayers of Kootenai County, will not result in any reduction of their property tax bills and will simply erode the taxable property value that the library district can utilize for its current budget discussions,” Crosby said.

At a public meeting earlier this month, community members urged the board to take the 3% tax increase allowed by law, which would increase the network’s revenue by nearly $150,000.

Ottosen suggested Friday that taxpayers who wanted trustees to take the 3% increase should instead donate to the Friends of the Community Library Network.

“I’m very pleased that the budget is done and that the staff can move forward, making plans and strategies for making the reductions that need to occur,” Eccles said Friday.

The board has until Sept. 7 to adopt a final budget.

Sunday closures

The board majority passed a motion to close libraries Sundays beginning in September. But it’s unclear whether the libraries will close or not.

Ottosen, Plass and Hanley voted in favor of the closures at Thursday’s meeting.

But after more discussion, including comments from legal counsel D. Colton Boyles that the board has “raised the specter of imminent litigation,” trustees voted 4-1 to table the motion on Sunday closures until further notice.

The tabled motion had already passed; however, and the board did not vote to undo it. Ottosen suggested Friday that libraries may still close Sundays beginning in the fall.

“What I would like to do is save us some money there, since not that many people come in on Sundays and put it toward collections,” Ottoson said Thursday about the closures.

The Post Falls and Hayden branches are the largest in the network and the only ones currently open Sundays. Post Falls saw an average of 103 visitors each Sunday in June, while Hayden had an average Sunday door count of 142 people.

Shuttering the libraries on Sundays would save an estimated $27,800 by eliminating two part-time positions. But the actual savings could be significantly less than that. Eccles noted that the network would have to reprint any material with branch open hours, change the signage on library doors and more.

Ottosen has repeatedly cited her Christian faith as the reason why libraries should close Sundays.

“I know many people at these tables don’t subscribe to this, but the Lord blesses people when we keep the Sabbath day holy,” Ottosen said in a July meeting. “I think having people work on Sunday is actually to our detriment.”

The board received a letter dated Aug. 9 from the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which asserts that closing libraries based on Ottosen’s religious beliefs violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Ms. Ottosen is entitled to her religious beliefs, but she is not entitled to use the power of the government to enshrine those beliefs into law and to thereby force them on her constituents,” the letter said in part. “The board has a legal obligation to refuse to act on Ms. Ottosen’s religious grounds.”

Community members have pleaded with the board not to force Sunday closures.

Celene Thomas of Athol, who works at the Newport Library, nearly burst into tears Thursday as she addressed the board.

“I come to you today not as a librarian, but as a mother and I am so disgusted and horrified by the actions that the new board members have decided to take,” she said.

She said she understands the new trustees campaigned on “protecting children.”

“What you are doing is not protecting them,” Thomas said. “What you are doing, cutting hours and services and programs, you are going to harm them in ways that I don’t think you understand. When you cut down programs and books and items they can check out, you limit the opportunities for them to grow as an individual.”

Materials selection

Trustees debated proposed changes to the library network’s materials selection policy but did not vote on them. The board agreed Friday to review an updated policy draft at a future meeting before making any decisions.

Ottosen proposed striking the entire “Intellectual Freedom” section of the policy and replacing it with a “First Amendment” section that reads simply, “The choice of library materials is an individual matter for adults.”

The current materials selection policy states that the library will exclude from the juvenile and young adult collections any materials that violate Idaho’s laws on disseminating “obscene” or “harmful” material to minors.

Ottosen, Hanley and Plass want the policy to specify that the library network won’t use an affirmative defense provided by Idaho law.

“The law gives us an exception because we’re a library,” Hanley said. “I don’t intend to exercise that exception. We are going to eliminate and make it impossible to have obscene books in the library.”

Under the current policy, materials that have been declared obscene by a U.S. court will not be knowingly included in library collections. Because books are very rarely declared obscene, Ottosen suggested the policy creates a “loophole.”

“That rarely ever happens, so there’s pretty much no books that would be covered by that, in my opinion,” she said.

Hanley said the library network’s policy should use Idaho law to determine what material is obscene.

Idaho’s obscenity law specifically excludes any material which, “when considered as a whole, and in the context in which it is used, possesses serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” In other words, books with literary value cannot be obscene.

Ottosen also proposed changing the policy to say that “the responsibility for the selection of library materials rests with the library board,” rather than the library director.

Idaho law provides that library trustees must employ a director to administer the library. Per statute, it is the library director’s role to advise the board, implement the board’s policies, supervise library staff and acquire all library materials, equipment and supplies. The law does not empower library trustees to perform any of those functions.

“If we accept this, we will be in violation of Idaho Code,” Blank said.

Robinson also questioned how such a policy would work.

“Are we going to get monthly lists of books that are new and coming out that every library in the country gets and we’re going to personally go through them?” she said.

Financial management policy

The board voted 3-1 Thursday to implement changes to the network’s financial management policy that were proposed by Plass. Blank voted against the changes, while Robinson abstained from the vote.

Under the previous policy, the board was responsible for contracting legal services to represent the library district and gave the library director the authority to enter into other contracts on behalf of the district with a value of $50,000 or less. New contracts in excess of $50,000 annually required approval from the board.

Plass said he was “extremely bothered” that the previous policy delegated contracting power to the library director.

“I don’t want to be limited to that,” Plass said. “I also want us to be able to have the authority to control funds.”

The new policy gives the board authority to contract on behalf of the library district for the purchases of goods or services when the value of the contract is $50,000 or less.

“The board of trustees reserves authority over funds for board of trustees purposes and expenditures and payments per the treasurer,” the new policy states.

Plass said the updated policy will allow the board to keep certain expenditures private from staff.

“If it’s something that concerns the board and there’s confidential information in it, it shouldn’t be going to the staff,” he said.

American Library Association

The board will consider disaffiliating from the American Library Association, a nonprofit that promotes libraries and library education. It is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with nearly 50,000 members.

Hanley criticized the ALA, calling it “ultra liberal,” and rejected the ALA’s “freedom to read” statement, which opposes censorship and promotes the idea that people should have the right to make their own decisions about what they read. The statement was first issued in 1953.

“The ALA has a clear animosity and resentment toward the family and traditional religious values,” Hanley said Friday.

Blank said to disaffiliate from the ALA would be “shortsighted beyond belief.” She noted the ALA’s public library trustee ethics statement.

“Their code of ethics for trustees sets very high standards and I am absolutely certain this board would not be willing to rise to those standards of supporting the First Amendment,” Blank said.