South St. Paul’s proposal to merge its city-run library with the Dakota County system cleared a hurdle Monday night when the library board agreed to send it to county officials for consideration.
The document poses two options, both of which include the county taking over the library’s operations, assuming ownership of its materials and hiring current employees.
Each option would keep the library in South St. Paul, and one would repurpose the historic 1927 building at 3rd and Marie avenues as part of the library complex.
Monday’s library board vote, which follows approval last week by the City Council, is the latest step toward determining the future of the library, one of just a few city-run facilities in the metro area. A possible merger with the county system has come up repeatedly over the years, but concerns about losing the library building and its small-town feel stalled talks.
City officials said the building needs upgrades, including a new roof and mechanical systems. Library staffers said it lacks the room and amenities of modern libraries.
The city’s proposal should spur further discussion with the County Board, several City Council members said.
“Since I’ve started here the issue has been, ‘What are we going to do with the library?’ ” said Mayor Jimmy Francis. “This is a wonderful opportunity to see what could be.”
Dakota County officials said they couldn’t comment on the proposal until they receive it from the city.
The first option would reuse the current library and expand it onto the site of the Lawshe Museum next door, but only if the museum moves. The museum is home base for the Dakota County Historical Society.
The second choice is to build a new library at 7th and Marie avenues on land owned by the city and the South St. Paul school district. It would require closing 7th Avenue.
The South St. Paul library has an annual operating budget of nearly $770,000. If Dakota County took over the library, the city would save about $320,000 in annual property taxes.
Some residents, however, fear that a Dakota County takeover would mean losing autonomy and a sense of history. A residents group led by local historian Lois Glewwe wants the library to stay at its current site and under city management. She said it’s a unique community asset that’s regularly used by neighborhood kids and seniors.
Glewwe said she’s also upset that the proposal suggests the historical society might leave. She laments the lack of creative solutions by city and county officials, she said.
“It’s like they just had made up their mind that they don’t want the library anymore,” she said, referring to City Council members.
A recent city survey indicates that 61% of residents think the current library needs upgrades, 17% disagree and 23% are uncertain. When asked whether Dakota County should take over the library, 49% said yes, 35% said no and 16% said maybe.
A starting point
Talks about the library’s future began several years ago. A 2016 study recommended building an addition and other upgrades to the existing library at a cost of $4.5 million.
A year ago, city officials asked the county to study a merger, but county officials said no; they wanted to nail down plans for the building before making other decisions.
Kathy Halgren, director of the South St. Paul Library, said the city library has enjoyed its independence but that “there’s no question” Dakota County has a great library system. Halgren, who said she sees the city’s proposal as a starting point, added that she prefers the option of incorporating the old building into a new one.
Matt Carter, who leads the Dakota County Historical Society, said the library’s future is a “hot-button issue” in the community and that there are pros and cons to each option. He said he hasn’t heard anything “other than rumblings here or there” that the Lawshe Museum might move. The museum also needs renovations, he said.
“Right now, we’re in a holding pattern,” Carter said.