The Flathead County commissioners on Monday unanimously voted to remove $1.9 million for a new Columbia Falls branch library from the county’s proposed five-year capital improvement plan.
The money had been earmarked for the 2017 fiscal year to move forward with a proposal to relocate the library at Columbia Falls City Hall to Discovery Square in downtown Columbia Falls, which is owned by the nonprofit First Best Place organization.
“I don’t believe the county at this time can take on a project like that,” Commissioner Pam Holmquist said. “Right now the county should stick with the buildings they have.”
Holmquist said the county shouldn’t be buying property and maintaining it “with the hope that sometime down the road someone will do something with it.”
Flathead County Library Director Kim Crowley said she’s baffled by the commissioners’ decision.
“I was shocked and don’t understand them pulling a new library for Columbia Falls from the plan for capital improvements,” Crowley said.
She noted that funding for a new main county library and Bigfork branch remain in the five-year plan for future county improvements.
The capital improvement plan called for a 9,000-square-foot library building to serve Columbia Falls and outlying communities, based on growth projections through 2025. The library is one of several branches of the Flathead County Library System.
According to the original plan, the alternative to a new library is to “stay in current overcrowded and cramped building. Shelving is ancient and dangerous.”
A $100,000 allocation for the Columbia Falls project, which has been in the county’s capital budget for some time, is all that will remain in the capital improvement plan for the Columbia Falls library.
County Finance Director Sandy Carlson said the commissioners had concerns about the Columbia Falls project two weeks ago when she presented the plan — a funding guide that will be updated every year — for approval. That approval is still pending and will be reconsidered now that the $1.9 million earmark has been removed.
The idea to relocate the Columbia Falls branch library to Discovery Square was pitched by First Best Place about four years ago as the county Library Board was considering an expansion of the existing library at City Hall.
The Columbia Falls City Council held a work session in January 2011 to determine the level of community support for relocating the library, but after a lively discussion there was no clear consensus about how to move forward.
At that meeting, Crowley pointed out that the expansion of the Columbia Falls branch has been in the library system’s plans because of a 54 percent increase in checkouts of books and materials over five years.
The Columbia Falls Library Association has not taken a formal stand on the relocation proposal. Some association members have asserted it’s not the association’s place to take sides, and that it’s a matter to be decided between the city and county.
In late June, the county Library Board discussed the possibility of buying Discovery Square, a former bank building on Nucleus Avenue.
The board is considering using the $100,000 set-aside to help pay for the building, appraised at around $490,000. The Flathead County Library Foundation would lead fundraising for the rest of the money to purchase the building.
“This is not a plan that has failed,” Crowley vowed. “We’ll look at it further.”
The $1.9 million earmark would have been used to remodel and upgrade Discovery Square. Of that amount, $200,000 would have been used to expand the library’s materials collection.
Last month the Library Board held a joint work session with the library foundation and a transition committee to continue discussion about the proposed relocation.
Commissioner Cal Scott attended the work session. He said that “ideologically,” having the library at Discovery Square would create a positive community gathering place in a central location. But questions remain about the cost, building inspections and so on.
“There are a lot of questions in underwriting this type of venture,” Scott said.
One question at the work session was whether the money would be there to maintain a larger facility. First Best Place figures maintenance currently costs about $1,200 per month.
Other questions included whether a library was the best use of the Discovery Square space, whether there was community buy-in and what would happen if Columbia Falls wanted to secede from the county system, similar to what Whitefish did.
Holmquist said a 2011 survey showed only 18 percent of the respondents favored moving the library out of City Hall.
Commissioner Dale Lauman said he’s concerned that after three to four years, “nothing has materialized” on the library proposal.
“Are we stepping into something that may grow beyond our intentions?” he asked.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.