The Hennepin County Board was reviewing its five-year facilities plan when board Chairman Mike Opat spotted the dollar figures for the county library system.

Hennepin's 25 suburban libraries, the chart showed, would need $5.7 million over the next few years for maintenance, energy and lighting upgrades. On the other hand, the 16 Minneapolis libraries recently added to the county system were slated for $7.6 million in similar work. And that didn't include another $915,000 for automation system improvements.

Opat frowned.

"What did we take over here?" he asked, his voice edged with frustration. "How decrepit are these [Minneapolis library] buildings ...? Was any of this disclosed to us by the Minneapolis Library Board, or Minneapolis City Council, to any degree that would suggest this order of magnitude?"

Nearly two years after the Hennepin County merger that rescued Minneapolis libraries from mounting financial problems, the two systems have consolidated their catalogs, developed a single website and united their nonprofit arms.

Three city libraries that had closed for lack of funding have been reopened, and two new suburban library buildings will open next year. The 41 libraries in the combined system now house the 12th largest public library collection in the nation.

Yet, the fair-to-middling condition of many of the Minneapolis branches, owing to years of deferred maintenance even as city leaders built a new $125 million downtown library, continues to vex some Hennepin County officials looking to rein in spending and reduce capital expenses in the midst of a sluggish economy.

Even though the county's marriage to the city libraries came with a dowry of sorts in the form of $18 million approved by city voters for library remodeling, it won't be enough to cover those costs.

As with most county departments, the library system is slated to take a hit in 2010. The proposed budget is $69.1 million, a 6 percent decrease from this year's spending.

In an interview last week, Opat -- whose northern Hennepin district is suburban, save for a chunk of northwest Minneapolis -- said that improvements at suburban libraries shouldn't be delayed to make room in the budget for upgrades at city branches. It might be necessary to spread out the schedule for Minneapolis facility improvements, he said.

"It stings to find that Minneapolis referendum money isn't going to come close to remodeling the [city] libraries to our standards," he said. "It also stings to find that many of the libraries are in need of capital repairs."

The tipping point

In 2000, Minneapolis voters approved a $140 million referendum to build a new Central Library and cover improvements to the system's neighborhood branches.

But the city's libraries were already running a deficit, a situation that dramatically worsened when the state cut aid to cities. Only a year after the downtown library opened, the city's libraries were forced to accept a merger with the far healthier county system.

The merger was rocky almost from the start. Merger costs ran $3.5 million higher than expected, although that was offset somewhat by job cuts and administrative savings. County commissioners, including Opat, wondered whether the city had withheld critical information and if the county had done enough to ferret it out.

Judy Hollander, Hennepin County's property services director, said the county examined the Minneapolis system as much as possible, given the tight timeframe of the merger. Hollander said that city library officials, working with a reduced staff and limited resources, had postponed regular building maintenance in a number of cases.

Minneapolis' libraries are much older than those in the suburbs. The average age of the city libraries is 57 years, versus 29 years for suburban libraries. On average, Minneapolis libraries were last remodeled 15 years ago; in the suburbs, the average length of time is 10 years.

But it wasn't just the city's older buildings that raised eyebrows. The board found out this summer that the three-year-old Minneapolis Central Library hadn't yet been recommissioned -- a process that adjusts a building's mechanical systems for more efficient operation, and that in this case may cost $200,000. Hollander said that some of that cost might be covered by federal stimulus funding.

In other ways, the merger made great progress in 2009, said Sharon Charles, the Hennepin County library services manager. Phones and computers have been standardized, policies and procedures are becoming uniform, and a new strategic plan is in the works.

The proof is in the popularity of the library system's services: By the end of this month, the library projects that 16.7 million items will have been checked out this year. That's the fifth-highest circulation in the country, she said.

And people are beginning to forget that the Hennepin County Library is a newly merged system, Charles said. "When the catalogs were combined in August, I think that was the tipping point. We are one," she said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455