Commissioners are reviewing the Teton County Library budget and preparing to discuss the legal framework for possibly taking over some aspects of the library’s budgeting process after disagreeing with the library’s response to the global pandemic.
“I think this came up when it came to the board’s attention that the library had been closed for several months,” Commissioner Mark Barron said during an Oct. 12 regular county meeting.
This isn’t the first time Barron has brought up the library’s pandemic response. He took issue with administrators and board members during the Aug. 4 county commission meeting, asking why the library was asking for full funding when it was “closed.”
Library Director Oscar Gittemeier told Barron the library was not, in fact, closed and that it had been offering curbside pickup for months. The library has also been offering virtual checkouts and programming, including candidate forums. Newly hired to lead the library, Gittemeier started the job as director in July.
“If we were to describe a restaurant that’s doing takeout, we wouldn’t describe them as closed,” Gittemeier said at the meeting. “So it seems odd to describe the library as closed when we’re providing services seven days a week.”
Barron explained the impetus for the review after the Teton County Board of County Commissioners’ official liaison to the library, Mark Newcomb, questioned the genesis of the discussion to audit and possibly absorb aspects of the library’s budget.
“Do you mean that we would be taking over their budget and be doing their budgeting for them?” Newcomb asked at the Oct. 12 meeting.
Commissioner Luther Propst likewise said he needed more information before launching into such a discussion.
“Before I have this conversation, I need to be educated about the statutory framework or the parameters for when a governmental agency, the library, Weed and Pest, Teton Conservation District are eligible to have their own mill levy,” Propst said.
Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery said he was already researching the potential legal issues after Teton County Library Board Chairman Mark Hendrickson and Treasurer Peter Stalker had reached out to Teton County Treasurer Katie Smits.
“I will have something to you, a legal document explaining the legal parameters of the discussion, prior to your meeting,” Gingery said.
The library board’s treasurer, Stalker, is interested in moving payroll to the county, Gingery said, but he added that there are issues beyond payroll to research and discuss.
As for the library’s limited operations during the pandemic, library staff based their tiered reopening plan they released in May on the Teton County Health Department’s risk-level system, which rates the risk to the community from COVID-19 on a color scale with red being the highest risk and green being the “new normal.” The original plan was to reopen the building to patrons once the county reached the yellow, low-risk level.
The county has never reached that yellow rating. So the library continued with curbside pickup of materials, virtual checkouts and programming but kept the doors locked. Under political pressure from some elected officials and community members, administrators altered their plan and reopened the building in a limited capacity when the county was still in the orange, moderate risk territory.
With cases rising and a high number of hospital beds filled, the Health Department has elevated the county’s status to the red, or high-risk, zone. The library’s COVID-19 plan says being in the red zone should mean the facility closes, but that so far has not happened.
This article has been updated to correct the date of the county meeting when the library's budget was discussed. The meeting was last Monday, Oct. 12. — Eds.