Northwest Indiana's public libraries have been anything but quiet in recent years.
Gary's library officials verbally brawled last year over one faction's plan to reconvert their downtown library into a museum. The Hammond Public Library was forced in 2011 to close its E.B. Hayward and Howard branches because of financial constraints and was in danger of major layoffs last year.
Merrillville, Crown Point and other suburban libraries have benefited from multimillion-dollar reconstructions. The Porter County Public Library system is planning a new branch of its own.
In the midst of troubled urban reading rooms and burgeoning computer labs of the suburbs are small community systems like the Lowell, Westchester or Whiting public libraries straining to offer the same services without taking on budget-busting debt.
Overall, some 303 librarians and support staff members worked for 27 main and branch facilities with combined expenditures of more than $78 million in Lake and Porter counties last year, according to the Gateway database furnished by the Indiana State Board of Accounts.
That results in a public cost ranging from $45 per person in the Porter County Public Library system, up to $233 per person in Crown Point.
The libraries have racked up a combined debt of of more than $56 million in principal and interest payments to be made over the next six to 18 years.
The chief debtor is the Lake County Public Library, which owes $27.8 million in total payments from now to 2024.
John Brock, business manager for the system, said the money was used for a just-completed remake of its central library and nine branches.
"We built all new buildings for St. John, Cedar Lake, Lake Station and a new Griffith-Calumet Township branch, and we extensively renovated Munster, Hobart, Highland and Dyer-Schererville. Here in Merrillville, we did a big remodeling," Brock said.
"We floated a $30 million bond issue in 2003, but we are about to refinance the bonds to lower the interest rate from 4.5 percent down to 1.59 percent. That can save $4 million to $6 million. We also will pay down the principal to end our payment schedule in 2020 instead of 2024.
"This doubles in size the older buildings, which were constructed in the early to mid-1960s and weren't designed for technology, computers and programing for children," Brock said.
Lynn Frank, Crown Point library director, said the city's new two-story brick library is responsible for the current debt load of $16.2 million.
She said there were no formal remonstrances, but the project did raise a few hackles, particularly among old-timers who fondly remember the venerable Carnegie Center, which was closed as a circulating library 41 years ago. It was replaced by a library on Court Street that closed last year for the latest version.
"In 1972, Crown Point had a population of 10,000; since then, we have absorbed the Center Township and Winfield Township areas, which now have have more than 40,000," Frank said.
"Our waiting list for the computers were so long, we had to shorten the time they could be on them, which makes it very difficult if somebody is trying to do a resume or a word document. Even if they brought their own laptop, there is no place to sit down.
"We do more school-age programs because there was more of a demand from home-schoolers. We have been astounded with our summer reading program, where we have had over 650 kids sign up," she said.
The Westchester Public Library has no current debt because it can't afford the luxury of borrowing, said Phil Baugher, its director.
He said library officials had considered building a $17 million new library in 2001 until Bethlehem Steel, the community's largest employer, went bankrupt and the Duneland School Corp. already had declared its intention to build a large, expensive high school.
He said the library lost 49 percent of its revenue.
"I had to lay off 58 people and kept only 10. Our reading materials budget went from $350,000 to $50,000. We decided that maybe right now is not the time to incur debt," Baugher said.
Instead library officials banked their savings, waited for the property tax levy to recover and confined themselves to minor improvements such as repaving the parking lot, remodeling bathrooms and modernizing ventilation machinery.
"We still have a nice children's department, which shares space with presentation areas, which 150 people can use," he said.
Gene Pidzarko, Lowell public library director, said his system has kept its debt under half a million dollars, which represents borrowing to replace old air conditioning.
He said Lowell could use a larger staff and cannot boast a computer laboratory, but "our borrowing has been very conservative. It seems like a responsible burden on the taxpayer," he said.