Too many questions, not enough answers

Dakota County balks at taking on South St. Paul Library



By the end of its General Government and Policy Committee of the Whole meeting on March 12, the Dakota County Board of Commissioners was left with more questions than answers when it comes to possibly taking over operations of the South St. Paul Library.

The board did not accept a memorandum of understanding with the city, which the South St. Paul City Council passed on Feb. 19, with the possible aim of inserting the city’s library into the county library system.

Tom Novak, director of Dakota County public services and revenue, explained the memo of understanding would have prompted the county to look into how it could integrate the South St. Paul Library — its staff, its collection and equipment, and potentially the building itself — into the county system. 

South St. Paul turned to Dakota County after a study of its near 100-year-old library building found it in need of costly repairs and upgrades.


‘A marriage proposal’

Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord, who represents District 2, which includes South St. Paul, said the city’s library facility isn’t something the county wants to put its name on, longterm.

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to bring it up to standard if we’re going to abandon it next year,” she said.

She added she would like to see the library stay where it is, since it’s a historic part of South St. Paul, but recognized that keeping the status quo restricts the quality of library services that the city can offer.

Commissioner Chris Gerlach, who represents District 7, said the study was pushing to ask how the county would take on the library, rather than if it should.

“Other than the uniformity of the library system, why do we want to do this?” he asked.

Commissioner Joe Atkins, District 4, said he loves the “little library” and that he grew up going to it.

“My real concern is ... this is sort of like proposing on one of those reality shows. You propose marriage before you really know everything. My concern is if we go down this path, we’re sending a message and setting expectations,” Atkins said. “I know it’s only a study but it sounds like we’re going to dance this dance, we’re going to get married, and I don’t know anything about what the future of the building might hold or whether or not we want to be there.”


Touchy subject

Gaylord said there should be a county library system that incorporates all of Dakota County, but there is a little pocket — South St. Paul — not included because of the history.

A former South St. Paul mayor, Gaylord said she knows the library question is a touchy subject.

“I’m not quite sure [the South St. Paul] library board is with you. I’m not quite sure your community is with you,” Gaylord said. “We have some work to be done in that area.”

With more questions than answers about the current library building, the board decided against taking up the South St. Paul memo of understanding, with commissioners saying county staffers could reach out to the city with information about a potential merger in an informal manner.

Speaking after the meeting, County Manager Matt Smith said it’s important to recognize that the South St. Paul City Council took the step of formally requesting the joint library study.

He said the county wants to be helpful, but thinks the board believes the most important question for any future library affiliation is what the city plans to do with its library building.

South St. Paul City Administrator Joel Hanson said the city will continue to figure out what it would mean if the city library joined the county system. 

-Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or

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