South St. Paul’s city-run library is not only the lone independent library in Dakota County but also one of the few remaining in the Twin Cities.
Over the years, the idea of the city library folding into the Dakota County Library system would pop up from to time.
The suggestion always went nowhere, mostly because of fears by some that the city would lose its charming colonial-style brick building, which opened in 1927, as well as the small-town service its staff gives.
But South St. Paul and Dakota County recently rekindled the integration idea and are now planning to study what it would mean for both.
Last week, the South St. Paul City Council approved a “memorandum of understanding” with the county that outlines what should be studied, including whether it makes sense to remodel and add more space to the existing library or build a new one someplace else in the city. The county board is expected to consider the document next month.
At first glance, South St. Paul officials say, a merger would be a cost savings for the city, which no longer would have its annual library operating levy. Also, the cost of either upgrading the current facility or building a new one would fall on the laps of all Dakota County residents, not just South St. Paul taxpayers.
‘I HAVE A KIND OF SICK FEELING …’
All of this talk worries lifelong resident Lois Glewwe, the city’s unofficial historian.
“I have a kind of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that this doesn’t have a happy ending for our library,” she said Friday.
Glewwe noted how the county has said it does not want the old library building in its current condition. She said she fears a decision will be made to not upgrade the building, which is the oldest public library in the county, “and then we’ll have yet another empty historic building sitting there that needs too much work.”
Moreoever, Glewwe told the city council at last week’s meeting, she is concerned the old library will be shut down after a merger and that a new one won’t be built at all. She points out that neighboring West St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights already have county libraries and believes a new one in South St. Paul “would be a really hard sell across Dakota County.”
South St. Paul City Administrator Joel Hanson and a couple council members spoke up to try to ease Glewwe’s fears, stressing that it is early in the study process and that citizen engagement and input will be part of the study and any future decisions.
Hanson also acknowledged that an earlier draft of the document failed to specifically mention that upgrading the library is a long-term option under a merger. It was unintentional, he said, and the document has been revised.
That initial oversight was what got Glewwe fired up in the first place, prompting her to send emails to city staff and council members and start a Facebook page, “Save Our South St. Paul Library.”
$4.5 MILLION IN UPGRADES RECOMMENDED
Hanson pointed out that South St. Paul asked Dakota County to work with the city on the study and that the county is “not pushing this agenda.”
The condition of the current building is the main reason the city is looking into a possible merger, Hanson said.
A consultant commissioned by the city in 2016 to study the building recommended $4.5 million in upgrades, including a new roof and mechanical systems. It also suggested tearing down a 6,150-square-foot wing added in 1965 to make room for an 18,200-square-foot, two-level addition that would also provide about a dozen underground parking spaces.
Undated courtesy image, circa Feb. 2017, of a proposed design option for the South St. Paul library. A consultant hired by the city in 2016 to study South St. Paul Library is recommending a $4.5 million expansion and remodel of the original Colonial-style brick building, which was built in 1927. Image courtesy of LSE Architects.
Community input was also part of that study, and residents made it clear that they “treasure” not just having their own library but the existing 1927 building, a summary of the report read. “They love the cozy feel and historical context,” the report said.
But as Hanson noted last week, “The concern we have is making improvements without knowing the long-term plan for the library could result in wasted tax dollars.”
Moreover, the renovation cost would swell nearly a million dollars by 2021, which is the earliest the work could be done, according to Hanson. If South St. Paul were to take on the renovation project alone, he said, the debt spread over 20 years would be about $350,000 to the $757,000 the city already levies for library operations.
“Probably the key point with all of this is if we became part of the Dakota County system, they would take over those financial responsibilities,” he said. He estimated that the amount to be levied to South St. Paul taxpayers under a county-run library would be about half of what the city currently levies for the library.
Hanson said the other key areas of the planned study are:
Staff transition to Dakota County employment
Service levels under the county system
The transferring of city library assets, such as books and equipment
An explanation of a process and timeline for the identification of a site, design and construction of a library or remodeling the current one
A commitment from the county to maintain library operations in the city, or give the city the option to resume library services if the county were to ever discontinue service.
Dakota County owns and operates nine libraries and has a long-range plan that recommends renovations on a 12- to 15-year cycle to adjust program space for changing needs.
Dakota County Manager Matt Smith noted how South St. Paul Library and the county system already have a relationship. The city chooses its collection of more than 67,000 items, and they’re listed in the county’s catalog. Books and other items are shared, allowing patrons more choices.
Smith said a study — if given the green light by the county board — would finally nail down the costs and the benefits for full integration.
“From the county’s point of view, we’re being approached by the city to study this,” he said. “And so we will with them because we’re always interested in making sure we’re providing consistent services as much as we can to everybody in the county.”