HANCOCK COUNTY — The Hancock County Public Library has laid out an ambitious plan for growth and improvements over the next five years.
The library’s board of trustees this week approved a capital improvement plan, detailing potential future projects and the expenses associated with each one – not the least of which is a new branch, located in McCordsville.
“The greatest card growth by township is consistently Vernon Township,” said Dianne Osborne, the library’s director. “They’re very open to service.”
While a McCordsville branch is a few years and lots of negotiating away, several other major projects are on the horizon.
The library’s plan would also have the organization expand the Sugar Creek branch by converting the Techmobile garage into program space, which will be possible once the aging Techmobile is phased out in 2015. The Capital Improvement Plan does make way for the Techmobile to be replaced, possibly by a more efficient, smaller vehicle. The library also plans to continue implementing new tracking and sorting technologies in both branches and begin setting aside money for the early redemption of HCPL’s bonds.
“These are things we think are important,” said Peggy Pritzke, HCPL board president. “So now we’ve got to think about how to get there.”
The capital improvement plan was discussed and approved at the board’s most recent meeting, where members acknowledged the importance of putting into place a plan that helps them identify costs of possible upcoming projects so officials can adequately plan for expenses on the horizon.
The plan also tries to identify possible funding sources for some of these large-scale projects.
The library funds capital projects through a variety of sources. It regularly sets aside money from its operating fund for the Library Improvement Reserve Fund, to help fund future capital projects. That balance is expected to be nearly $900,000 by the end of the year. It also uses grants, donations and long-term bonds to help pay for projects, like expansions and new construction.
A little more than half of what is in the reserve fund right now has already been earmarked for projects in the plan: $150,000 to cover the majority of the cost for new collections sorters that will make use of RFID technology that the library rolled out earlier this year; $300,000 to fund the entire conversion of the garage at Sugar Creek; $120,000 toward the purchase of one of more vans to replace the Techmobile.
The library could also dip into its Rainy Day fund, where it holds nearly $2 million, for some of these future capital projects. In a meeting of the finance committee with financial consultant Greg Guerrettaz, the Rainy Day fund was mentioned as one of several possible funding sources for both bond redemption and the McCordsville branch project.
Of all the projects in the library’s Capital Improvement Plan, the McCordsville branch is by far the most ambitious.
The project is still just in the idea stage – no specifics as to location, or size have been determined – but it’s estimated that the new branch would cost about $2 million.
A project of that magnitude would likely require a new bond issue, to be accompanied with various other funding mechanisms. It will also require negotiating the territory with the Fortville-Vernon Township Public Library that currently serves it.
“The only way we can do this (McCordsville branch) is if we merge or if they keep just Fortville and give that township to this library system,” said Sen. Beverly Gard, an HCPL board member.
Gard is in favor of merging the two systems but said it would be difficult to do since the Fortville/Vernon Township library would like to remain independent.
The notion of merging the two systems is not new. In 2010, a financial study showed that having one system serve the entire county could reduce costs by eliminating some redundancies.
Now, though, the issue is more about reaching a part of the county that feels underserved, Osborne said.
Osborne said the library hears from residents of Fortville on a regular basis asking for service in their community. Right now, however, HCPL’s hands are tied, she said.
Because the two library systems have a reciprocal borrowing agreement, McCordsville residents can be HCPL cardholders, but it still requires a trip to New Palestine or Greenfield to check out materials or take advantage of programs. Still, about 1,500 Vernon Township residents are HCPL cardholders – just about 100 fewer McCordsville residents than hold Fortville/Vernon Township library cards. Vernon Township has consistently been the source for the largest increase in cardholders each year, as well. In the past decade, the number of cardholders from Vernon Township has grown 13 percent.
Tonya Galbraith, McCordsville’s town manager, said the town would like additional library services.
“We have sort of an underserved population,” Galbraith said. “And we’re the biggest population (in Hancock County) outside of Greenfield now.”
McCordsville has a population of nearly 5,000, according to 2010 census data. It was the fast growing part of Hancock County, experiencing more than 300 percent growth over the last decade. And it hasn’t slowed down, Galbraith said.
“Our population continues to increase, and people that move here are going to want to know where their library is,” she said. “It’s just an amenity that makes sense.”
Though McCordsville is part of Vernon Township, as served by the county’s smaller library system, the system has no presence, permanent or mobile.
So extending HCPL services to that area in the form of a new branch would help reach that “underserved population” and also help equalize the services that are available to those residents.
With an annual budget of more than $3 million, dozens of employees and a 40,000-square-foot central branch, the Hancock County Public Library has the means to make available to patrons a vast array of resources and programming. Online offerings, like free music downloading and e-books, have become hugely popular – boosting circulation to over 80,000 items each month.
On the other hand, the Fortville-Vernon Township Public Library system has one 8,000-square-foot building that was built in 1986. It offers a few programs, like story time, but none like those at HCPL, which can draw several hundred visitors in a day.
Vernon Township doesn’t have any online resources, and it doesn’t have to any type of mobile library, to help get more resources out into the community.
With a budget about 15 percent of HCPL’s, Vernon Township Library Director Richard Bell said the library has had to make careful decisions about where to spend money.
“Our costs have been stable over time,” Bell said. “I want to make improvements, but that takes money. Politically, we keep hearing we need to watch our spending.”
Bell said he’d love to be able to purchase more resources, but in an era of belt-tightening for local government, he’s tried hard to keep costs low. He also said he has to weigh the expense against the number of people resources will be serving.
But he insists consolidating the two systems might not result in any actual cost savings, as some have argued.
“They’re spending considerably more per capita,” Bell said of HCPL. “We have different views on how to deal with frugal times.”
Indeed, the Hancock County system spends a great deal more per capita for all of those programs, services and online resources. Hancock County Public Library spends about $73 per capita on library service, while the Fortville-Vernon Township library spends less than $43. HCPL’s expenditures put it in the top 20 percent of the state for spending, while Vernon Township is in the lower third.
For library administrators, however, it’s hard to know what level is appropriate. Both library systems’ budgets are reviewed by the county and have funds appropriated through the same channels. Bell said he’s been trying to be fiscally conservative with taxpayer dollars, so if patrons want more services they need to understand that comes at a cost.
“People want more stuff to borrow, but they don’t want to pay more taxes,” he said.
Bell also said he’d like a directive from county officials if they want Vernon Township’s library to be doing something differently.
“If there is a desire for expanded library service, I would need to see the county give some direction,” he said.
Tiffany Eggers brings her five kids to the Fortville-Vernon Township Public Library on a regular basis, to check out both kids and adult books and sit in on story times for children.
Eggers said they sometimes go to the Fishers library also and like Fortville’s much better.
“It’s much smaller, so it’s an easy library for moms with kids,” she said.
Eggers said she also appreciates Fortville keeping their fines low – just a $5 maximum.
Bell said comments like that help justify having multiple library systems in the county. It’s also a common practice around the state – Indiana’s 92 counties support 238 public library systems.
“I think this is a pretty good service model,” Bell said. “We shouldn’t have to change our identity.”
The decision of what to do with the territories will ultimately come down to the boards of each library system, and the solution will not come overnight. HCPL has made it clear, however, that finding a way to extend greater services into McCordsville will be a priority in the coming years.
“We cannot ignore McCordsville anymore,” Osborne said.