The Lake County Public Library director is concerned a proposed consolidation with the Hammond Public Library will be expensive and cut resources to the system's current patrons.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. has named consolidating the Hammond library with the county as one of his legislative priorities in the upcoming Indiana General Assembly. McDermott contends consolidation will lower the property tax rate Hammond residents pay for library services.
Yet, Lake County Library Director Ana Grandfield said consolidation can have hidden costs.
“In all honesty, if we take on Hammond, it would be very difficult to give the same quality of service to everybody because we're going to be spreading ourselves thinner,” Grandfield said. “Even with the tax money from Hammond, it is going to be thinner for us overall.”
McDermott maintains consolidating the library is in the best interest of Hammond residents and will allow the library to remain open. He likened the proposal to when Hammond consolidated its health department with the county.
“I don't know where Lake County will be on the issue,” McDermott said. “I'm expecting them to be opposed to it like the Lake County Health Department was opposed.”
McDermott brought up the idea of consolidation as the Hammond City Council considered a proposed $800,000 increase to the Hammond library's budget for next year. Council members denied the budget increase, which means the library will come to a breaking point by June and may have to lay off half its staff, said Paul Taylor, Hammond Library Board president.
Taylor said consolidation is not the board's first choice, but he wants to make sure Hammond residents have library services.
“If we are forced by the City Council and the mayor to have a different service provider to do that then that's what we will do. I think we can do it better and more efficiently in the city of Hammond,” Taylor said.
State law currently allows libraries to merge, but only if both boards agree to the merger.
Rene Greenleaf, the Hammond library director, declined comment.
Grandfield said the county library has long held the stance that if consolidation were to occur, it should encompass the whole county. Hammond, Gary, Crown Point, East Chicago, Lowell and Whiting all maintain their own systems. Grandfield said county-wide consolidation is the only way to assure all library services are equal.
“We take the stance it has got to be all or nothing,” Grandfield said. “That's the only way it would work.”
Absorbing the Hammond library would be a difficult transition, Grandfield said.
The Hammond library does not use the same computer software as the county, Grandfield said. The building in downtown Hammond is too large for the county to operate, and the county couldn't afford to pay all of Hammond's current staff, Grandfield said.
“There's too many public service points,” Grandfield said. “You need people at every floor. We have a hiring freeze. We are very lean. We don't have that many people for one building.”
Grandfield said consolidation would likely increase the property tax rate for the Lake County Public Library by 1 to 2 cents. The county library currently operates on a lower tax rate than Hammond for its general fund with an 8 cents tax rate per $100 of taxable property compared to Hammond's 17 cents.
The Hammond library also owes a remaining $7 million on a bond issued for the renovation of the main library. Grandfield said she's unsure how the bond debt factors into consolidation.
“I know our constituents wouldn't want their debt,” Grandfield said.
The county library also would pay more for its reference databases, which allow patrons to search for information on a multitude of topics, because those are priced by the population of the library district. Taking on Hammond, a city of more than 80,000 people, would bump the county library up to a more expensive price bracket, Grandfield said.
“Why should our patrons, our current patrons, be given less library resource just because we have to take on Hammond?” Grandfield asked.
“They should be able to enjoy and use all the library resources they've been accustomed to because that's their right. They have been paying for that all these years.”