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Billings Public Library

The Billings Public Library seeks about $21,000 during the coming budget year for additional guard service.

CHASE DOAK, Gazette Staff

A library request for almost $21,000 more during the coming year for additional security guard coverage sparked a Billings City Council discussion Tuesday on how library staff deals with transient or homeless patrons who utilize a public building while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

“In all my years working in library land, it’s gotten a little more aggressive this year,” Library Director Gavin Woltjer told the council during his 2018-19 budget presentation. “We’ve had a harsh, mean winter.”

He said he plans to secure additional training for library staff to de-escalate situations that can involve mental health problems, intoxication and drug use. But additional guards are needed during the winter months and during evening hours, he said.

“You understand the library is for everyone, regardless of station or economic status,” Woltjer told the council. “But there’s a balance between compassion and accountability. We want to make sure this population is respected, but they must follow our rules.”

Once people “saw that we weren’t going to tolerate x, y or z (behavior), they started policing themselves,” he said.

While “Yellowstone County has exceptional (mental health and human) services, they are exhausted quickly,” he said. “We are by default a place where they can go, and we have seen a lot of public intoxication and drug use. By the time they get to the library, they are already intoxicated, and we are dealing with that.”

“It would be great,” he told the council, “if we could get a social worker at the library to direct people to services.”

At least one council member said she's seen staff deal with what can be difficult behavior with compassion and care.

“I’m at the library often, and I find the service you provide the homeless population one of dignity, and I’ve witnessed it first-hand,” said Councilwoman Penny Ronning. The fact that people can and should feel safe at the library "is an important message we need to send out to the community," she said.

Woltjer also announced a new twist on the Bookmobile: a pedal-powered library set to launch next month on an oversized tricycle with a wooden carrier on the back.

The idea, he said, is to visit outlying areas with technology and books. A survey indicates residents who must travel more than 12 minutes to reach the library aren’t as likely to utilize library services, he said.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.