The Oro Valley Town Council last Wednesday accepted a lengthy study of the town's public library operations, with a recommendation that the town maintain control while seeking to renegotiate its cost-sharing deal with Pima County.

The council also voted to send the issue to town staffers for further study.

Convincing the county to agree to renegotiate the cost-sharing arrangement appears unlikely, according to statements made by Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

"It's almost a core policy," Huckelberry said last week.

Huckelberry said the policy has been at the heart of the agreement between the town and county since the library was built. He also noted the long historical precedent set decades ago through previous agreements between the county and City of Tucson.

Under Oro Valley's intergovernmental agreement, which expires in 2012, the county reimburses the town up to 50 percent of annual operating costs. Unlike other county libraries, Oro Valley Public Library employees work for the town, not the county.

Still, the town puts about $700,000 into the library in addition to more than $2 million that local residents pay in property taxes to the county free library district, which operates the county's 27 branches.

At last Wednesday's meeting, Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis cautioned council members and library supporters about attempting to renegotiate the cost-sharing aspect of the agreement.

"There's no incentive for the county supervisors, especially when the R's in the county are primarily ignored by the D's in the county, to accept recommendations from our representative (Ann Day)," Loomis said. Supervisor Day is one of two Republicans on the Democratic-controlled board.

Loomis explained that in past negotiations, the county has been unwilling to change the cost-sharing agreement.

"That's probably fairly accurate," Huckelberry said.

The county administrator added that if the town did want to turn over library operations to the county, a 1-cent increase to the library district property tax would likely be necessary to make up the loss of Oro Valley's $700,000.

Control at what cost?

"What we have is a duplication of efforts where the citizens are getting ripped off," Councilman Bill Garner said.

For Garner and other critics of the current arrangement with the county, the cost of maintaining local control of the library, at least under current terms, is too high.

Garner also questioned the long-term viability of the library commission's recommendation that the town seek additional funding for the library through an increase to the local utilities tax.

Councilwoman Salette Latas also questioned such an increase.

"My feeling from the electorate is that they don't want us to raise taxes," Latas said.

Supporters say the town's affiliate status allows a level of autonomy not enjoyed by the county's 26 other libraries, and is worth the cost.

"The library, in my estimation, is worth all the money it costs," said Jayne Kuennemeier, who sat on the library commission as Mayor Loomis' representative. She also helped found the Friends of the Oro Valley Public Library, a group that has donated more than $500,000 to the library over the past several years.

Kuennemeier suggested the council could raise sales taxes by a quarter cent to help fund the library, and thereby avoid some of the unintended consequences of relinquishing control to the county.

The library study noted that when Tucson turned its libraries over to the county in 2006, Pima County took not only the buildings, but in the case of the Wilmot library, the property as well.

The possibility of Pima County owning the Oro Valley library building and the land, both on the grounds of the town campus, was noted in the commission study as a troubling aspect of turning over control.

Huckelberry's comments indicate the county possibly would try to acquire both land and building if the town ceded control.

"It's negotiable for sure," Huckelberry said, noting the Wilmot property was taken because the balance sheet showed the county had a more than 50 percent investment in the property.

Depending on how the finances are measured, the town has about $5.4 million invested, the county $3.1 million.

Another concern was the thousands of books purchased by the Friends that get returned to the Oro Valley library when checked out. There's a concern those books would be disbursed throughout the county system if Pima County took over the library.

A politically charged issue

Over the course of the commission's meetings, the library proved an emotionally charged issue.

Councilman Garner's appointee, John Musolf, abruptly quit the group in early May. He later penned letters to The Explorer encouraging the town to relinquish control of the library to the county to save money.

His comments evidently frustrated some group members as well as the Friends of the Oro Valley Public Library, who organized a letter-writing campaign to counter Musolf's comments.

In conversations posted on an online forum, Friends members discussed ways to spread their message of support for town control.

"Someone must respond to John Musolf's letter in The Explorer. It can't be me, but I have written one that anyone could redo as their own," read one message posted June 6.

Kuennemeier originally wrote those comments in e-mail to another Friends member, who later posted the message online. The Explorer subsequently published a pair of letters written in support of local autonomy for the library, and critical of Musolf.

Kuennemeier said she only gave suggestions for points that should be raised, and never wrote any letters herself. "Those letters were written by the people who sent them," she said.

Commission member Alisdair Innes, appointed as the Friends' representative on the study commission, seemed aware that people might question the objectivity of letters to the editor that came from members of the library support group.

"Apparently Jane has a neighbor who is going to sign off on the article. I guess this avoids any comments from the public that it is a Friends of the Library article," Innes wrote on June 7.

Oro Valley Public Library Director Jane Peterson also participated in the online discussions.

In December and again in January, prior to a town council study session on library operations, Peterson posted a set of talking points for Friends members to use when discussing the library at town meetings or with council members.

The memo raised issues of staffing levels at the Oro Valley Library as opposed to the county system, use of the computer lab for training town employees, programs offered at Oro Valley's library, collections development and support from the Friends group.

According to the talking points suggestion, the Friends were reticent to continue supporting a library without the autonomy Oro Valley's enjoys.

"Friends do not want a branch library. They support our affiliate status," Peterson wrote.

Many of those same issues raised in the memo were parsed in the library commission's final report and again raised by library supporters at the June 16 town council meeting.

The discovery of the online discussions after the commission concluded its work has led Garner to question the objectivity of the study.

"Had I known that we had biased the committee up front with the Friends, I would have asked the council not to allow committee representatives to have affiliations with the Friends," Garner said.

The June 16 council meeting, like the online postings, was fraught with emotion, expressed most ardently by the Friends of the Oro Valley Public Library and its many backers who wore stickers in support of the local library.

"It would be tragic if we lost control over our library," Bill Fry told the council. Fry, who teaches a literature class at the Oro Valley Public Library, echoed the statements of many in the room who urged town leaders to accept the recommendation of the Oro Valley Citizens Library Review Committee.

Oro Valley has studied the library issue, and its relationship with Pima County, in the past.

In September 2006, the council voted to explore all options for the library, including giving it back to the county. More than 100 people attended that meeting and, like last Wednesday, implored the council not to hand over operations to the county.

A series of public discussions and studies by town staffers preceded the October 2007 approval of the current operating agreement with Pima County. That agreement expires in 2012.

Oro Valley may be in the same situation it was during the last negotiations with the county. "I don't think that much has changed," Councilman Al Kunisch told The Explorer.

Kunisch said he supports the recommendations in the study.

What next?

The council voted, at Garner's suggestion, to have town staffers review the commission's findings and return recommendations.

Garner said the library report left too many unanswered questions that need answering.

"The committee missed their marching orders," Garner said last week.

He said the group should have presented the town a list of pro's and con's about keep or relinquishing the library. Instead, he said, the report leaned too heavily in favor of keeping the library.

"They discounted the easiest way, a turnover," Garner said.

Councilman K.C. Carter objected to the suggestion.

"All this is, is that you want to destroy their report," Carter said to Garner.

Carter wants the council to hold a meeting with representatives from the county to begin discussions on changing the terms of the agreement.

"We have a contract with the county, we should have a study session where we decide how to get a better understanding with the county," Carter told The Explorer in an interview last week.

Another proposal that came out of the study was to lobby the state legislature to change the laws that govern library districts.

The purpose of that would be to allow towns to opt out of county-run library systems or to mandate that counties reimburse completely affiliate libraries like Oro Valley.

The council plans to discuss library options again in future meetings.

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