The Olathe Public Library needs more space. On that point, at least, city and library leaders seem to be in agreement.
But how to go about it is a matter that has city leadership and some longtime library advocates at odds.
On one side: Mayor Michael Copeland and some city council members who say the library governing board needs more of the city’s resources to create the spacious modern meeting places a growing city deserves. To that end, they want to change the city charter to make the library a city department, rather than the separate taxing entity it now is.
On the other: Some former library board members who say the current system is working fine without a fix. They fear the change will leave the library vulnerable to interference by elected officials. And they question what will happen to the library’s main funding source — a dedicated mill levy — once the charter has been changed.
Former library board member Tom Hutcheson and others have been uneasy with the speed and scope of the changes being proposed, and the fact that they have flown largely under the public radar.
For example, on Jan. 5, Copeland appointed six new members to the library’s seven-member governing board, keeping only one of the former board members. This was possible because in 2012 the mayor stopped filling vacancies on the board or reappointing members whose terms expired.
It was that new board that recently voted its approval of the plan to put the library under the city’s more direct management. The council received that report without comment at its April 7 meeting and could begin discussion of the charter change as early as April 21.
Although that charter change is controversial, no one disputes that the library needs an upgrade. No substantial remodeling has been done since the Indian Creek branch at 12990 S. Black Bob Road was built in 2000, said director Emily Baker.
Even as it opened, library planners knew the 12,000-square-foot branch would soon be outgrown. The original proposal was for a 15,000-square-foot branch, followed later by a Phase 2 that would roughly double the space. But the first phase had to be scaled back because of budget concerns, and the second phase never has been built.
Yet in that decade and a half, the city has continued to grow. The mayor said 2,400 people moved to Olathe in the last year.
Copeland said he is enthusiastic about making major improvements to the Indian Creek and downtown branch at 201 E. Park St.
“We need to do something special,” Copeland said. “The resources are not available under the current structure.”
Currently the Olathe Public Library is semi-detached from the city. Its governing board makes the decisions on how the library is run and sets a yearly budget. Most of its approximately $4.5 million operating budget comes from the 2.5 mill levy collected expressly for library use.
However, it doesn’t have complete independence. The city council approves the budget and any decisions about building expansion. And the library governing board members are chosen and approved by the mayor and city council.
The Olathe Library is also separate from the county library system, although a partnership with the county library allows patrons to borrow easily from both. The library board considered joining the county system two decades ago but in the end decided to keep its independence, said Baker.
The controversy over who would control the library started in 2011, when the library board proposed an expansion of the Indian Creek branch. Before that, library operations had remained pretty much the same for a little over a century.
The library has operated under its current structure since the city established it in 1909 and Andrew Carnegie donated $10,000 to put up its first building on North Chestnut Street. In 1977, voters approved the $1.6 million bond for the building on East Park Street, which opened in 1979 and is still in use. Twenty years later, voters approved money for the first phase of the Indian Creek branch.
The population was growing by the time that branch opened in 2000, and the library appeared headed for more expansion. Its “Four Corners” plan would have added two more branches, but voters narrowly rejected the idea in 2004.
By 2011, the library board came back with a new expansion plan that would use $2.5 million from its capital reserves fund to expand the Indian Creek branch.
Library officials presented that plan for the city council’s input. But instead, the council opted for a bigger involvement. A joint task force was appointed, and Group 4 Architecture, consultants known for work with libraries, was summoned.
The consultants recommended the city focus on expanding space for its two existing libraries, rather than adding more branches. The plan called for the downtown library, currently about 24,000 square feet, to grow to 40,000 to 55,000 square feet to adequately serve the future population. The Indian Creek branch should be expanded to 30,000 to 40,000 square feet, according to the plan.
Along with that came the city’s idea to change the charter, make the library a city department and make its governing board an advisory board.
“They didn’t believe a non-elected citizen board would have the skill or expertise to do an adequate job of management,” remembers Dana Lambert, former chairman of the library governing board.
Jack Hansen, current library board chairman and the only member to be reappointed by Copeland, said he doesn’t know why the city council responded the way it did. “I think the city felt circumvented,” he said. “But we weren’t trying to circumvent the city. We brought it to them.”
Hutcheson, a former board member, said the library board always sought the council’s opinion on big decisions. “They could have said no. If they’d done that, we would have said fine. That was the way it always worked,” he said.
The city’s interest in a more ambitious plan was a surprise, said Hansen. “We were kind of dumbfounded but also at the same time attracted to it,” he said.
Copeland and City Manager Michael Wilkes compared the library plan with one the city put in place for the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm a few years back.
The former Mahaffie board wanted an expansion but “didn’t have the wherewithal to make it happen,” said Wilkes. The stagecoach stop became a division of city parks and recreation and has since made some major improvements, Wilkes said.
“It was very successful with Mahaffie, and I believe it can be successful with the library,” he said.
But the historic Mahaffie site didn’t have its own taxing powers. Library board members have been hesitant about the city’s plan because of unanswered questions about how the mill levy would be handled if the charter is changed.
“I have been more a proponent of, well let’s see the plan and then consider changing the government,” said library board chairman Hansen. “I haven’t understood why we have to put the cart before the horse.”
So far, he said, the city hasn’t presented any specifics on the funding structure of the library as a city department.
Wilkes said the city is still working on the specifics of how the funding stream will be handled if the library becomes a city department. However he expects the library’s mill levy to continue to remain separate on the tax bills. The city will set up a special fund — separate from the general fund — to receive tax money raised for the library, he said.
“The council’s intention in this whole thing is to continue to enhance the library’s operations in the city of Olathe,” Wilkes said.
Hansen said he trusts that the city council will move forward with library expansion and not divert library money into other uses. Just the same, “If there’s a reason to take over the library, why can’t we develop a plan and do it in steps?” he said.
Last year’s library board members had some other issues with the idea as well. In a talking-points paper the board drew up for discussion with the council, the board said it is better equipped to deal with day-to-day library operations and can act on them quicker than a city administrator would be. The same paper quotes American Library Association concerns that librarians serving as city employees may be less able to advocate freely for library issues and intellectual freedom in its collection.
Adding to the library board’s frustration was the fact that the mayor stopped making new appointments to the board in 2012. Lambert, who has since moved to Lenexa and could not serve another term, said she believed Copeland had a wholesale change in board membership in mind when he did that.
Copeland said he simply didn’t want to subject new members to the workload that went with the library visioning process.
“I have nothing but the highest level of respect for all those who served on the board,” he said.
Copeland said he’s excited about the improvements that can be made with more direct city involvement. “Our goal isn’t to diminish. Our goal is to grow,” he said.
Money collected for library purposes and will be used for library purposes, he said.