Costs of the merger of Minneapolis and Hennepin County libraries are running $3.5 million more than expected for Hennepin County. That news Tuesday prompted some spluttering County Board members to cast blame and doubt on county and city staffers who made the deal.

The unexpected costs range from higher benefit costs than expected for former Minneapolis library workers to a money-losing parking ramp under the downtown library. The Jan. 1 city-county merger formed the continent's eighth largest library system by circulation.

"There are a number of things about these revelations that are troubling to me," said Commissioner Mike Opat, who chairs the committee that hashed over the disclosures Tuesday. The news comes when the county already is looking at cutting hundreds of jobs next year due to state and federal aid reductions.

Commissioner Penny Steele said, "There's either a failure to do due diligence here or a failure to disclose."

Some commissioners said the disclosures in a staff memo make them wary of doing business with Minneapolis. That could be significant given that it's unclear whether the county will go ahead with previous plans by the city to build a planetarium atop the downtown library.

The higher merger costs are offset by almost $1.3 million in savings identified to date, leaving a net potential effect on the county budget of $2.2 million. About $560,000 of that is from leaving positions unfilled, and $510,000 is from savings in administrative costs.

City representatives say they negotiated in good faith but that differences in budgeting practices may have obscured certain costs. "That's the essence of it. End of story," said Anita Duckor, last president of the city's library board.

One example of how far apart city and county budgeting were was that the city budgeted worker benefits at 30.4 percent of payroll, compared with 39.4 percent for the county.

County Administrator Richard Johnson said additional savings will accrue from the merger after the current budget year. For example, he said that the situation will accelerate plans to combine differing computer systems that guide library operations, including circulation and catalog. That's complicated by the city and county libraries used different cataloging systems.

'Profound mismanagement'

The memo co-authored by Library Director Amy Ryan and Property Director Judy Hollander said that the city's library budget operated on a deficit that was financed by drawing down a fund balance. "It was profound mismanagement," Commissioner Mark Stenglein said afterwards.

But some staff members said that the county shouldn't have been surprised that a cash-starved city system was skimping on such matters as buildings and grounds on which the county spends more.

Although the board has the option of financing the deficit from its contingency fund, Johnson said he wants to see how much of the deficit can be addressed through other means first.

Commissioner Gail Dorfman reacted more calmly than some commissioners. "It's always disappointing to find things you didn't know ahead of time, but it's not surprising," she said.

"We need to chew on this some more," said Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. He said some expense increases are attributable to the county having different ways of operating than the city.

He said he took some responsibility for pushing to meet the Jan. 1 merger target, but said he felt deteriorating city library conditions warranted haste. Three city libraries that have since reopened were closed before the merger and others were open far fewer hours than suburban libraries.

Ballpark sales tax money has helped add longer hours, but that money can only be used for expanding service, not to pay for shortfalls in current operations.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438