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Hanson-McCook library eyes final chapter

In this October file photo, Hanson-McCook Regional Library Director Cherie Schroeder checks out a book for a child on the library's bookmobile. The future of the library is unclear after McCook County decided to discontinue funding. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

SPENCER -- The Hanson-McCook Regional Library is in dire straits after McCook County commissioners stopped their funding of the library.

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A 5-0 vote last month by the county commission to defund the library and distribute its assets in December 2014 has moved McCook County out of the partnership. That leaves Hanson County to potentially vote on whether or not to continue with a library, because that county's portion is funded by a tax levy.

Both counties had been funding the library and its bookmobile at requested levels until two years ago. Hanson County cut its portion of the library's budget by 50 percent from $28,000 in 2013 to $14,000 for 2014. McCook County dropped its funding from $40,000 in 2012 down to $28,745 in 2013 and to $15,000 for this year.

"It's very sad," said Denise Erickson, who serves as the chairwoman for the regional library's board. "We don't really know what's going to happen next. It's all up in the air."

She thinks the county commissioners are making a mistake.

"I think they feel that with technology the way it is, that people don't read books anymore, which I don't agree with at all," she said.

The Hanson-McCook system operates as a bookmobile throughout both counties three days a week during the winter, serving schools, nursing homes and Hutterite colonies, and then is open in Spencer on Fridays. Thursday operates as a makeup day in case there are weather problems. The bookmobile normally runs four days a week in the summer months.

Commissioners from McCook County have indicated they don't feel it makes sense to continue. Commission Chairman Marc Dick said the bookmobile was created in the 1960s in an era of rural schoolhouses. Now, with schools having their own libraries and the rise of digital books in numerous forms, he said it was time to consider something else, especially since kids in the county can easily access books.

"If it was hurting our kids, we would be doing something different," Dick said.

Previously, the funding for the library system was loosely based on population in each county. Because McCook County has more citizens, it was paying for a larger percentage of the library's operating expenses, and Hanson County was covering the rest. Library Director Cherie Schroeder said the funding split was roughly 65/35, but library usage has been closer to 50/50, with a slight edge to McCook County.

In the last year, Hanson-McCook has had to stop putting plastic dust jackets on its books, adjusted its summer schedule and moved Schroeder to a part-time role.

Schroeder said some of the McCook commissioners have been supportive but that support seemed to disappear when a decision had to be made Jan. 21 and the vote against the library was unanimous. Previously, the county's commission had indicated it didn't want a new written contract between the two counties and didn't feel it had to negotiate with Hanson County, with each county able to appropriate for the library as it pleased.

McCook County State's Attorney Mike Fink said any distribution of the assets wouldn't happen until the end of the year but said some sort of agreement will have to be reached between the two counties on how the assets would be split up based on each county's financial commitment over the years. The written agreement regarding the library partnership was originally created in 1961 and was terminated January 1, 2012. Since then, Fink said the two county commissions have been operating under an oral agreement, and now the McCook County commission has given its advance notice to end the regional library.

Dick said the increasing costs of health insurance for county employees, wages and keeping up the county's roads are pressing issues for the county of more than 5,500 people.

"We're trying to be as progressive of a county that we can be and do what's best for everyone," Dick said. "That means some tough decisions, but money is always an issue for our county."

Because Hanson County funds its library using a levy system, the county's citizens will likely have to vote to approve disbanding the library partnership.

Hanson County Commissioner Ed Engelmeyer, of Alexandria, said he's had people on both sides of the issue give their thoughts. He said it ultimately comes down to the tightening county budgets, which he said is happening everywhere. Both Alexandria and Salem have community libraries that would continue to operate independent of any Hanson-McCook changes.

"We've supported it up until this year," Engelmeyer said. "We have to decide if this is viable for the future and consider some changes. Maybe we need to do something else."