Heartland library co-op split under intense study

MOORE HAVEN — Okeechobee County Library Director Kresta King told Glades and Hendry county commissioners last week how splitting the Heartland Regional Library Cooperative in two would get its more rural, southern two counties plus Hendry additional state money.

The cooperative now takes in five counties (DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee) and, if Hendry County decided to join the overall group, it could break off with Glades and Okeechobee into a smaller, tri-county cooperative that would take in nearly a quarter-million dollars more in state financing every year. Hendry now acts as its own cooperative and thus receives limited state funding.

That’s what Ms. King, who also serves as executive director of Heartland (HRLC), proposed at the joint workshop of the Glades and Hendry county commissioners Wednesday, Oct. 2, at the Glades County Regional Training Facility. Not all commissioners were present and it wasn’t an official meeting, but by consensus they agreed Ms. King should take the idea further. The counties must let Heartland know by April 1, 2020, whether they want to reconfigure, and it would not take effect until Oct. 1, 2020.

“It really is a wonderful opportunity for our communities, and I am hoping that it comes to fruition,” she said Monday. “They did approve my being able to actually look at numbers and present budget figures and speak to the library staff to gain their input, but no vote was actually taken about changing either the Hendry or the Heartland cooperative. Individually, each county commission would need to approve it.” That includes the other ones presently in it.

Ms. King explained she first sought approval from the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners, since they’re her immediate bosses, on Aug. 8. She’s also executive director of the HRLC, however, and asked the Heartland governing board to approve researching this move on Aug. 21. Both boards were unanimous in their support.

Now to crunching numbers
Presently, she’s engaged in fact-finding, she said. Working with the 2017-18 figures she cited in her report to the Heartland RLC governors, she provided the basis for 2019-20 state aid numbers. They go up or down depending on how the Florida Legislature or counties tweak their formulas but are a good benchmark for how much funding will be available.

Ms. King’s report explains: “If HLC were to split into two separate cooperatives, consisting of three counties each, then the maximum state aid funding available would become $678,208 divided among six counties, rather than $450,000 for five. An additional benefit … would allow more community-specific services to be provided to the member counties.”

It also presented scenarios for other counties to be grouped together, different combinations, and gave financing estimates for each.

At last Wednesday’s joint meeting, Glades County Commissioner Donna Storter Long, the library liaison, said, “It’s been a big advantage for us being in a cooperative, but we have an opportunity through (her) diligence … to perhaps form a new one and we would benefit from more money for each library.”

Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner wanted to get more facts, and to know whether any decision was to be made that evening. “I don’t know how they’re funded currently, so I want to make sure I cover every base to make sure I do not hurt our library system right now.” It was noted the meeting was only a workshop.

Ms. King said that because of technological advances, there are many more possibilities for outreach to communities and for assisting college and university students, as well as younger ones, in their learning journeys. She said two smaller cooperatives would not mean any change in how the local libraries would be governed, since the co-ops are there only for support. The cooperatives’ financing goes for shared services, thus freeing up more local money.

“Heartland, to kind of put in perspective how this conversation came about, was founded in 1996. That was before Google was created, before Bill Gates gave the first computers to libraries. The HLC has five counties … and they now have over 200 computers, from zero to 200 since 1996. What came about in the past year, we went to a new database that allows us to check out items. The database works like a browser, so you can take it anywhere …

“One of the dreams of the library system was to be able to use student IDs as a library card. Well, now, the technology is finally there, with this we can do that; also, people can use it on their home computers,” she added.

She called it an eye-opening moment, that “if we split by adding another county, Hendry, we can maximize our money,” as well as potentially become leaders in the Florida Library System by implementing the new database across all six counties and sharing a courier service, “so that patrons will still be able to borrow and return items at their regular libraries, regardless of the cooperative to which they belong.” That’s not being done anywhere else in the state.

So, libraries still would receive their budgeted local funds, but some would be freed up because, “instead of paying for the internet use, the library may use those funds to increase staffing or purchase more books, DVDs, or computers, or increase community programs.”

Ms. King said that would really be “a win-win situation. I hope that it happens, but it’s too early to know that it will.”

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