Now that Lake Elmo has all but divorced itself from the Washington County Library system with the intentions of preserving its community library, the city now faces the challenge of setting up an arrangement to gain access to books and services from the system it seeks to leave, or severing ties altogether and starting its own library.

It's a daunting job, but it beats the alternative of not having a library at all, said Bruce Messelt, city administrator.

"We were not seeking to leave, but we wanted to preserve library service in town," Messelt said, noting that the Rosalie E. Wahl Library in the city's downtown has operated in Lake Elmo for more than 50 years. "We wanted to have some services in town."

After the Washington County Library Board voted earlier this summer to close the Lake Elmo library along with branches in Newport and Marine on St. Croix to help balance its budget, the Lake Elmo City Council voted Sept. 13 to keep the tax it levies to pay the county for library services and use the money to fund its own library.

The vote appeared to be a tipping point in a long-running battle over library services between the city and the county, said Mayor Dean Johnston.

Over the past 10 years, he said, the county failed to keep the collection current and slowly cut the number of programs and services offered at Lake Elmo. It also reduced its operation to 20 hours per week, which drove many residents to use libraries in surrounding communities. The vote to close the small library was the last straw, Johnston said.

"We wanted a library in Lake Elmo. We offered options and they rejected them all," Johnston said. "They left us no choice."

The move to withdraw from a county system is unusual in that it bucks the pattern of city libraries merging with county systems, said State Librarian Nancy Walton. That happened in 2008 when the Minneapolis system merged into the Hennepin County system. But there has not been a city that has withdrawn from any metro area systems, Walton said.

Johnston is hoping that Lake Elmo can operate in a manner similar to libraries in Columbia Heights, South St. Paul, Bayport and Stillwater. Those libraries operate independently but have associate status with their respective county systems that allow patrons access county collections and services.

Messelt said Lake Elmo could pay a fee to Washington County for that privilege, or explore developing a relationship with Metropolitan Library Service Agency (MELSA) to gain access to a wider collection.

Sally Lederer, a MELSA spokeswoman, said there is no past practice for making such arrangements and was not clear if such an arrangement could be made.

Walton said making an arrangement with Lake Elmo would be a "difficult precedent" and wondered if it might unravel relationships MELSA has with other libraries.

"They are looking at what their options are," Walton said. "We are in the discussion stage and looking at six options. We hope it will all work out."

If Lake Elmo is unsuccessful in developing a partnership with Washington County or MELSA, the city would truly be on its own. Lake Elmo would have about $235,000 to work with when its separation from the county becomes official on Jan. 1. That is more than the $131,752 annual operating cost of the Rosalie E. Wahl Library, but does not include costs for software licenses, maintaining patron records, sending notices and other administrative overhead, according to Washington County Library officials.

Johnston said he feels that's plenty to maintain the current level of service and improve it. But without a partnership, Lake Elmo would have to buy its own books, CDs, DVDs or magazines, and find a place to set up shop. Washington County leases space for the Wahl Library.

"Operating on your own is a very expensive model," Walton said. "There are hidden costs in operating a library."

It is possible Lake Elmo residents could still use Washington County libraries in nearby Oakdale, Mahtomedi, Forest Lake and Woodbury if they buy a library card for $60, said Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel.

"I am worried about the impact this will have on the citizens of Lake Elmo," he said. "We were not looking to downsize libraries, but we can't afford to put a library in every community."

Rumors of Lake Elmo's departure bubbled up earlier this year, and the Washington County Library Board planned its budget accordingly. Its budget of slightly more than $6 million preserves six branches -- Stafford in Woodbury, Hardwood Creek in Forest Lake, Park Grove in Cottage Grove, Oakdale, Wildwood in Mahtomedi and Valley in Lakeland -- that will operate Tuesdays through Saturdays. Approximately 11 staff members will lose their jobs, said Pat Conley, library director.

Two years ago, the library system put in a Library Express in Hugo. There patrons use a kiosk or their home computer to reserve materials, which are delivered to lockers outside City Hall. Washington County plans to put similar service model in place in Newport and Marine on St. Croix to keep a presence in those cities, Conley said.

The kiosk system had also been considered for Lake Elmo, which with 29,357 loans accounted for 1.3 percent of all library loans systemwide last year.

With budgets for the next year already set, Lake Elmo does not have the option of changing course and returning to the county system during 2012.

"I wish them the best," Conley said. "I hope it works out for them."

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib