Damakant Jayshi

The Marathon County Public Library could add a security guard to the Wausau branch to address a rising number of unsafe incidents in and around the building, from drug overdoses to assaults and more.

“It’s very, very concerning and something that we’re really worried about because we have hundreds of families that come in and out of our library all the time and I don’t want them to feel scared or uncomfortable to come into the library,” Library Director Leah Giordano said Thursday, while briefing the first meeting of the new term of the Marathon County Extension, Education and Economic Development Committee. “What we’re looking into now is security for the library, particularly at Wausau.”

Giordano said she is “referring specifically to concerns with individuals perceived to be having mental health or addiction issues creating an unsafe environment for staff and patrons.” Such security issues have been reported at all of the library’s nine locations, but are most common at the Wausau branch, she said.

Wausau Police Chief Matt Barnes referred to some of those issues at past City Council meetings. He said some homeless residents have been aggressively panhandling, loitering, fighting and using public spaces for urination and defecation. Some of them have allegedly resorted to vandalism and public sexual activity.

Police say the problem is especially significant in downtown parking ramps and in the area around the library. Officers regularly respond to issues in the downtown area involving the city’s homeless population, which has increased significantly in recent months.

Giordano was quick to distinguish between peaceful homeless residents who use the library’s services and others who cause problems.

“It doesn’t matter if you live in a castle or you don’t have a home…You know, we have some of our best patrons. I’m fairly certain they don’t have homes, but they come in and they read and they are our favorite patrons,” she said.

But other patrons, she said, are looking for somewhere to sleep or to spend time until a shelter opens and are “not there to use our services. They’re there to cause trouble.”

Advocates emphasize that homeless people sometimes simply have nowhere else to go, at least until the shelters – if they are available in the first place – open the doors. The City of Wausau has a few nighttime shelters but their capacity is limited and they have rules that can prevent some people from entering.

Potentially complicating matters for the library, Wausau police have driven homeless residents out from the city’s parks and encampments under bridges, leaving fewer options. Over objections from some alders, citizens and advocates, the city approved hiring two additional officers to work specifically with homeless residents and uphold city and state ordinances.

Giordano said she has held discussions with Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard, Wausau Police Chief Barnes and Sheriff Chad Billeb about the incidents and all support the idea of hiring a security guard who “can be a liaison between us and the police” and maintain security.

Leonhard told Wausau Pilot that those officials have been working with Giordano to identify and evaluate potential means to address a variety of behavioral challenges at the library.

“While our initial effort has focused on reviewing potential external contractual providers of security services, we will also evaluate the creation of an inhouse position as part of our due diligence process,” he said. He added that he would work with Giordano to make recommendations to the Library Board for consideration. “The approval process required will be determined by the particular recommendations selected.”

Some details about the need for security were shared at the March 18 meeting of the MCPL Board of Trustees. Those details are available in the board’s April 15 meeting packet.

According to the document, the library director had reached out to Northcentral Technical College and North Central Health Care for help in the matter. NTC expressed its inability to provide security guards from their program, but offered to do a security assessment for the library. NCHC has created a security team “and there may be a way for the library to create a similar team.” Other available options are reserve deputies or contracted security guards.

Giordano told Wausau Pilot the details are still being ironed out.

“Ideally, we would have security services during open hours,” she said. “Based on initial efforts and inquiry, it seems as though contractual services will be a likely route but I am open to all options.”  

As to whether the Library Board of Trustees approved the proposal, she said does not speak for the board but based on her recent discussions with them, “they are supportive of the idea of enhancing safety at the library.” Wausau Pilot & Review has reached out to MCPL Board of Trustees President Kari Sweeney for her response.