St. Croix County currently foots the whole bill for all libraries that provide services to rural residents, but that is set to change in March.

Starting that month, the Hudson Area Joint Library, a four-community partnership, will only receive funding for 70 percent of the cost incurred by serving residents outside the Hudson, North Hudson, town of Hudson and St. Joseph communities.

County supervisors reached this decision through a 15-3 vote at their Sept. 5 meeting.

The 30 percent difference, just over $25,000, will be distributed to neighboring libraries in proportion to the impact of the joint library's 2014 decision to halt funding to neighboring libraries.

"We can't totally restore the negatively affected neighbors, but we can do something to mitigate the damage," said Supervisor Roy Sjoberg, whose district covers part of Hudson. "At any time the Hudson area joint library chooses to renew its promise to pay out the fair allocation, then we will certainly renew our 100 percent support to the (joint library)."

Full county funding for all libraries to cover service to rural residents would require a $1,156,590 levy in 2018, which would include about $84,000 for Hudson's joint library. Funding at 70 percent, as the board approved in their resolution, would drive down Hudson's portion to $59,000.

Financial strains

The joint library had originally agreed at its 2002 formation that it would collect funds through a tax on communities without their own libraries and reimburse neighboring libraries for serving residents of the four communities of the joint library.

The Hudson Library Board, however, reneged that agreement in 2014 in an effort to cut costs.

Rich O'Connor, Hudson Mayor and Library Board President, said the original agreement had little legal footing and the potential to unduly burden the library in the future.

"You cannot bind a council or community to make those payments in the future," he said. "Any governmental entity can go in and undo that; there's no sanctity in an agreement like that because you cannot bind future councils to that type of agreement."

Financial struggles appear throughout the joint library's 15-year history.

A 2012 discovery revealed that the library failed to meet the payments required for county tax exemptions and had been reporting inaccurate numbers to the county for about a decade.

The joint library operated with about half the funding state law requires from each of its four partnering communities at the time.

In the midst of the recession, the library board opted to halt payments to other neighboring libraries, a move that trimmed its operating budget by about $50,000.

They also reduced library hours by closing on Mondays.

Supervisor Scottie Ard, who also serves on the New Richmond Library Board, said the decision came at a significant cost to other community libraries, which would provide services to Hudson area residents during limited hours.

"For each day those doors are closed at the joint library, those residents are coming to other municipalities to utilize services and that costs those libraries money," Ard said at the Sept. 5 meeting. "The purpose of this (resolution) is to in some small way help those libraries gain back some of the money and the cost that they're expending for circulation."

Ethical, legal debate

Although the joint library's decision to cut off its funding for other libraries sparked debate, it was determined to be within its legal authority- a point Supervisor Bob Long cited for his vote against the Sept. 5 resolution.

"Is it appropriate for us to penalize an entity for something they had every legal right to do?" said Long, whose district covers parts of Hudson and Hudson Township. "That's essentially what we're doing: penalizing Hudson for something they had every right to do. Whether we like or agree with it from a policy standpoint, we really shouldn't be penalizing them."

But, Supervisor Judy Achterof, District 17, questioned, "is it right?"

"The way it was written up, there were some escape routes which they chose to use, but that doesn't mean it's right and that doesn't mean it's fair," she said. "... By doing it this way, it hurts a lot of libraries a lot less, whereas if Hudson keeps everything, it helps them tremendously and hurts to an even larger extent libraries that should have been owed money."

O'Connor said they city is drafting a resolution against the County Board's decision, which Hudson City Council will vote on at a future meeting.

"If we were funded at the statutory level, our budget will be twice what it is right now," O'Connor said. "Not one of these other libraries is in the same financial constraints we're in."