Waukesha County Federated Library System (WCFLS)

Tom Hennen was the Director of this 16-member library system from 1999 until his retirement in 2013.  Waukesha, a county of nearly 500,000 adjacent to Milwaukee County merged with adjacent Jefferson County to become Bridges Library System in 2016. Hennen’s experience with long range planning for the system as well as its member libraries helped lead to his planning bookand the founding of Hennen Library Consulting.  

WCFLS – Capital Costs Study

“Almost a third of this library’s users come from surrounding towns that do not pay property taxes for this building.  What are we supposed to do? Put a roof over only two-thirds of the building?”  That was the question that one mayor in a community that needed a new building in Waukesha County during the many years of debate over capital costs.

“You just want to build a Taj Mahal library at my expense,” was the rejoinder from the adjacent town without its own library.  “We pay plenty for the books, staff, and equipment.  Why should I help pay for a building that your city will own and control,” she asked.

Debates like that ran on for years in Waukesha County, resulting in the second County Executive veto in 4 years.  This was in a county that had only seen one veto fight in its history before that meeting on a stormy night in August of 2007.

The veto override session required a two-thirds majority of all 36 county supervisors.  As fate would have it, lightning literally struck down the override vote.  The home of a supervisor that planned to vote for the override, a vote that would have clinched the vote, was struck by lightning, and burned to the ground!

For the second time in 4 years, Tom Hennen was disappointed that the capital costs plan he had championed as Director of Waukesha County Federated Library System went down, this time quite literally in flames.

Library taxation in Wisconsin is confusing, partly because it is designed to be more fair than some other property tax-supported services.   Waukesha County taxes 19 communities that do not have their own libraries and gives formula shares of the funding to 16 municipalities with libraries.  The funding is for operational funds, not capital costs. State law allows but importantly does not require capital cost consideration for federated library systems. 

Based on extensive work by several long-range planning committees appointed by the county under provisions of Wisconsin’s Act 150, and the Capital Cost Committee appointed by County Board Chair in 2003 a county ordinance was advanced in 2003 and again in 2007.

The plan called for an additional county tax levy on the 19 non-library communities in the county.  The sum generated (about $350,000) was equal to 13 cents for every operating dollar for library service.  Director Hennen determined that as the national average for capital to operating funds over a 20-year period.

The funds would have been distributed based on a floating 3-year average of circulation traffic by residents of the 19 towns at each of the 16 libraries.  The Capital Cost committee intended this to be “revenue neutral” and a tax shift from one group of taxpayers to another although it recognized that there was no absolute way to police that intent.  The Act 150 Committee and most county supervisors agreed on the proposal but two successive county executives did not.

The moral here is that planning does not always result in the results envisioned but that is not a reason to stop planning.