By Shereen Siewert

A vote by the Marathon County Public Library Board of Trustees to leave the Wisconsin Valley Library System in a quest to improve local resources is prompting strong reaction, including criticism and questions about the financial implications for the county as a whole.

After a year-long analysis by the Library System Task Force, the board on Jan. 25 voted 4-3 to join the South Central Library System (SCLS). Marathon County Public Library Director Ralph Illick said the shift will resolve service issues and concerns about the WVLS” catering to other libraries” in the seven-county system, in which Marathon County has the largest in population and circulation.

Illick said the move will result in an improved and more user-friendly online catalog experience, local library patrons would gain access to over 3.5 million items available for checkout. That number is more than three times the amount currently available to them. In addition, SCLS’s large, specialized staff would offer services not currently available to MCPL or its patrons, including employees to assist in digitizing local historical documents, Illick said. Those would become publicly available for genealogy purposes and other research projects.

But WVLS Director Marla Sepnafski said her organization’s board is unaware of any service issues that would prompt MCPL to leave the system. She pointed to the library’s 2019 annual report, completed by Illick and approved in February 2020 by the MCPL board, which suggested WVLS did provide effective leadership to the library. And a review of past reports shows that no record of MCPL dissatisfaction with WVLS services has been documented in its public library annual report over a 12-year span.

“The WVLS has not met with Illick to discuss service concerns,” Sepnafski told Wausau Pilot & Review. “Unfortunately, our invitations for further discussion have not led to that desired outcome.”

Sepnafski shared a Nov. 5, 2019 letter in which WVLS Board President Tom Bobrofsky did invite Illick to the table to address any possible service concerns during a WVLS board meeting. Illick, in a Nov. 8 2019 response letter, declined.

“After conferring yesterday with my Library Board President, Sharon Hunter, we are not aware of any service issues that we seek to address at this time,” Illick wrote,

Community reaction and cost concerns

More than 600 Marathon County residents signed a petition opposing the move, urging the MCPL board to focus on identifying the problems and reasons for the proposed change. The petition, organized by Laurie Ollhoff, of Wausau, asks the board to address specific concerns that include a loss of current services, MCPL and WVLS job losses, and the potential to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal aid resulting from the shift. The petitioners ask the board to prove that withdrawing from the WVLS is the “only possible solution” to existing service problems – problems that they say the MCPL administration has yet to define.

“I was concerned with the lack of transparency to the public about a process that will have an enormous impact on patrons of not only Marathon County but other smaller communities that rely upon the neighboring services of the Marathon County Public Library,” Ollhoff said.

In a Nov. 3 letter to the task force, Department of Public Instruction Public Library Administration Consultant Shannon Schultz pointed out a number of ways the move would impact libraries remaining in the system, while questioning the timing of the decision.

“The Wisconsin Library Association’s Library Development and Legislation Committee is aware of legislative concern over funding of public libraries in response to the negative public perception of library closures during the pandemic,” Schultz wrote. “The MCPL board should carefully consider the stability of its support from the county at this time, so that it can make a sustainable decision that is in the best interest of the residents of Marathon County.”

She also cast doubt on the idea that the MCPL would benefit from the shift through a connection with the University of Wisconsin.

“I am not sure I understand this, because the UW is not in the SCLS (interlibrary loan system), and MCPL would still need to go through interlibrary loan to access its collections, just as it does now,” Schultz wrote.

That process would not change, and nothing prohibits MCPL from developing such relationships now, she added.

The most significant impacts to the remaining libraries, if MCPL were to depart, would stem from WVLS losing $80,000 in membership fee funding from MCPL and the $375,000 reduction in state aid that the system would qualify for.

“Such loss would require WVLS to reduce the services it could offer, and some staff that offer them,” Schultz said.

But Illick said any potential loss of funds is difficult to calculate, and adds that job losses at MCPL are unlikely. Further, Illick said the move could save the library money by allowing for significant reorganization.

“Because of the pandemic, we have eight open positions that are unfilled,” Illick said. “We wouldn’t lose jobs, but it would allow us to reconfigure.”

Joshua Klingbeil, deputy director and CIO of the Wisconsin Valley Library Service said the short answer to the question of whether jobs at WVLS will be lost is: “probably.”

“It is likely that such a move would lead to some form of adjustments to staffing in WVLS, but there are too many unknown factors at this time to say with certainty,” Klingbeil said. “On the other hand, the MCPL director clearly expressed that the higher cost of SCLS membership would lead to staffing reductions within MCPL – though no strategic plan or budget balancing proposals have been shared.”

County Board to decide

Ultimately, the final decision on whether to leave the WVLS and move to the South Central Library System lies in the hands of the Marathon County Board of Directors. That’s a facet of the discussion that troubles some library board members who believe they should be empowered to make those decisions based on their research.

Marathon County Dist. 1 Supervisor Michelle Van Krey said her main two concerns about the potential move are the effect on library patrons and the cost. Supporters of the move, conversely, say the SCLS has more materials, which equals better access for Marathon County residents.

“While it is true that SCLS has more materials, we already have access to those materials through interlibrary loan,” Van Krey said. “And, there are more people in the system, meaning longer wait times for popular titles. It’s frustrating to me that this move could impact our patrons and they were not able to provide meaningful public comment on the matter.”

Van Krey said she is concerned the move to SCLS will cost MCPL more money. The annual cost for SCLS is $124,056 and the annual cost for WVLS is $71,638, Van Krey said. MCPL also received $42,153 annually from WVLS for the rental of their office space located in the basement of the downtown Wausau branch.

“…you’ll see that he plan to offset the increased cost to move to SCLS is to have the library foundation pay for the one time costs and make up for the rest in staffing by not filling positions when they are vacated naturally,” Van Krey said. “They are clear that jobs will not be cut but this will still be a loss of jobs to the county since positions will not be filled when they are vacated. There is no way to control when this natural attrition will happen so it seems to me like a risky move to rely on it for cost savings.”

Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard said he will meet soon with Illick to review the work of the task force, particularly examining the financial implications of joining the South Central Library System. 

“It is my understanding that Portage County left the Wisconsin Valley Library System a number of years ago to join the South Central Library System, so I will likely reach out to my counterparts in Portage County to discuss their experience,” Leonhard told Wausau Pilot & Review.

Illick insists that the move will ultimately benefit the MCPL, which currently is the largest library in the WVLS – by far.

“Over the past nine years, the management team met repeatedly with WVLS,” Illick said. “It’s about finding a system that’s best for us. I cannot overstate that.”

But WVLS Director Sepnafski tells a different story.

“Why does this false narrative continue? Why hasn’t the MCPL Director made WVLS aware of service issues when specifically asked to do so by WVLS staff, WVLS Board of Trustees, Marathon County citizens, and library colleagues in surrounding communities, and made no attempts to address them? If there are service issues, why does the MCPL Director continue to state that WVLS provides effective leadership on its annual report submitted to the Department of Public Instruction? Why hasn’t the MCPL Director initiated a meeting with WVLS and MCPL stakeholders to collaborate on ideas to improve library services across Marathon County?

Sepnafski said WVLS will encourage continued investigation of the process, though the conflict may be unpleasant.

“Our organization continually seeks opportunities for service improvement
through honest dialogue with our member libraries,” Sepnafski said. “Absent an opportunity for honest communication to review and respond to MCPL service goals, it is difficult to be called upon to justify and defend our services, service quality, the positive relationships with MCPL staff, and the long proud 50-year history we have with Marathon County. We are confident that fact-based and data driven evidence will prove WVLS to be the best option for continuing system services to Marathon County and its residents.”