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Senators not fine with proposal for additional public library budget oversight

Members of the Senate Local Government Committee heard testimony Thursday about a House-approved proposal to allow local government councils to exercise binding review and approval of library budgets and tax levies. The chairman, state Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, fourth from left, said House Bill 1343 will not advance to the full Senate unless significant changes are made.

INDIANAPOLIS — Northwest Indiana library leaders, along with their colleagues throughout the state, appear to have closed the book on a legislative proposal they believe could have unfairly shifted library tax revenue to other local government units.

State Sen. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee, said Thursday that House Bill 1343 will not advance to the full Senate in its current form, and even significant changes to the measure may not be enough to garner sufficient affirmative votes from committee members.

The House-approved legislation currently would allow a municipal, township or county council to require a local library to annually submit its tax levy and budget for binding review and approval.

Under the measure, the councils also would have the authority to reduce library spending by a potentially unlimited amount, and to take library revenue for use elsewhere.

State Sen. Andy Zay, R-Huntington, the sponsor, said all unelected boards with tax levy authority, except libraries, already are obligated to submit their budgets for review by elected officials, and his measure simply would give local leaders the option of requiring libraries to do the same.

"By putting their budget and their levy request in front of a council for a binding review, it would allow that exposé, that openness and transparency," Zay said.

In response, a stack of Region librarians told the committee they always are mindful of how taxpayer dollars are spent, and said that allowing elected officials to check out their budgets could leave library patrons feeling less than fine about what's available to them.

"We take pride in looking at what we can do to ensure that we're not putting an added burden on any of our taxpayers," said René Greenleaf, Hammond Public Library executive director. "We are working very, very intelligently on what we are doing with our dollars."

Fonda Owens, director of the LaPorte County Public Library, said she already works in a collaborative way with local community and school leaders to make sure library spending, reserves and future investments are appropriate.

"The current process does work when we're all active, and we're all engaged, and we have communication," Owens said. "We don't need to make changes."

That sentiment was shared by Lake County Public Library CEO and Director Ingrid Norris, who was not placated by Zay's insistence that his legislation only gives fiscal governing bodies the option to conduct a binding budget review on libraries.

"I have a good relationship with our County Council and our commissioners. All it takes is one election and one disgruntled County Council member that could change all that," Norris said. "That isn't safe ground for me."

Finally, Wayne Wietbrock, secretary of the Lowell Library Board, told the committee that it makes no sense to imperil library funding throughout the state just because Zay is concerned about library budgeting in his northeast Indiana hometown.

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