Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Books, Budgets and Library Brawls

Above: Lest we forget what libraries are all about..."Sharing" sculpture outside Timberland Regional Library in Lacey. This boy is so busy "sharing" that he has been on the same page since 1993.

By Janine Gates

My most recent property tax statement says that I paid $68.21 to the Timberland Regional Library (TRL) system, so, after reading an article in The Olympian about TRL's upcoming town hall meeting, I thought I’d go learn more about their budget woes and why the recent library levy didn’t pass.

I love the library. I used to home school my kids and take out my limit of 200 books and videos at one shot. Before we went on our recent international trips, I checked out an equal number of books and videos to learn all I could in advance. I check out books every week. And no, I usually don’t bring them back on time.

According to the TRL Winter newsletter, TRL receives 89% of its revenues from property taxes. Most of the balance comes from taxes on harvested timber. With the decline in new construction and timber harvests, TRL faces a $1.5 million gap. TRL locations were visited almost 2.7 million times, and staff answered more than 500,000 reference questions. Cardholders borrowed almost five million items.

The meeting at the Olympia library on the evening of March 9 was a shock and an education.

TRL Board Executive Director Jodi Reng started off the meeting looking and sounding quite librarian-like. Dressed in a soft pink suit, she used an indoor, sing-song-y voice as if talking to children. But her preconceived agenda of polling the audience by a show of hands what they would be willing to pay extra for quickly started to run away from her and she soon turned as pink as her outfit. Good thing no children were present. She, and a few articulate audience members, would have knocked their socks off.

Reng wanted to explore options to the following questions: “To increase revenues, I would be willing to pay a fee for…,” and “To reduce costs, I would be willing to do without…,” however, audience members clearly did not want to be pigeon-holed into raising their hands to the polls without having more information.

"What kind of attempts have you made to cut costs?" yelled one man from the back of the room.

"What have we done? Goodness, we've done so many things..." Reng began, but she couldn't name any that didn't cut actual services.

A man stood up, paper in hand, and asked to speak.

Sit down Mr. Bragg!” Reng barked. “I don’t think anyone wants to hear a five minute talk.” The audience, aghast, protested her conclusion. Indeed, they wanted to hear from this elderly, kindly looking gentleman.

Reng pulled out her chair and huffily plunked down. He then identified himself as Mr. Kenneth Bragg, a former Timberland Library Board of Trustee, said he would hold his comments until the end. Internal politics appeared to be at hand here.

Judy Weaver, TRL board member and Michael Crose, TRL administrative services manager, were present.

The raucous evening, billed as a “town hall meeting,” was standing room only. The audience gradually stopped raising their hands as it became apparent people had deeper concerns on their mind and wanted to discuss what led the Timberland Library system into this budget crunch in the first place.

Audience members expressed significant problems with the execution and failure of the recent levy election, internal accountability and budget efficiency. The February ballot was expensive to produce and was offered to the voters at a time when there was no other reason for voters to pay attention. No voter’s pamphlet was offered to voters to educate the community about the proposed levy.

Many lobbied against the levy, not because they don’t love the library, but because they feel Thurston County is already shouldering most of the economic burden for the five-county library district.

The Timberland Regional Library system has a board of seven board members, appointed by the Thurston County Commissioners for seven year terms. Many feel these board members are not being properly accountable to the public because they are not elected, and the meetings are not televised on Thurston County Television (TCTV), like local city council and port meetings.

“What surprises me is the level of anger and angst,” one man said, who declined to identify himself later. “The library has to have a strategy for dealing with issues, opportunities for people to share their values - it would be an opportunity for dialog - to diffuse it in a cooperative manner….”

“That would cost money….” said Crose.

“Yes, that will cost money….” echoed Reng.

Many of the suggestions offered by the audience, such as offering a tea and coffee cart for donations and charging for overdue books, either appeared to be nickel and dime solutions or no-brainers, compared to the greater economic problem facing the library system.

Above: List of concerns include TRL practice of having state-funded meeting-dinners prior to board meetings.

A woman who identified herself as a former librarian was incensed with the purpose of the meeting. The woman, Susan Stringfield, later said she has been a librarian for 25 years and last worked for the Timberland library system four years ago. She reiterated that there are many, larger issues at play here that could have prevented this fiscal crisis in the first place.

“One of the issues that bothers me the most is that they have overspent the budget for the last two to three years. You don’t do that with government money. But the TRL Board rubberstamps expenditures….While I was there, I noticed a lot of problems - now I can’t even enjoy my library as a patron….” Stringfield said.

About the town hall meetings, Stringfield says the Board hasn’t even researched the cost of obvious funding options such as overdue fines, how much it would cost to implement and how much revenue that would generate.

“What did the most damage was taking away Sunday hours. That was a service people depended on….You know, we librarians have master’s degrees. We are professionals, and we have a creed to serve the public - we’re advocates,” said Stringfield, her voice rising with passion.

Eliminating Sunday hours at eight regional libraries and the telephone reference center saved TRL $150,000, according to the Winter 2009 TRL newsletter.

“That’s nothing,” says Stringfield. “Closing on Sundays hurt families and people who work. They (the TRL Board) didn’t even consider closing alternate Sundays, or possibly closing for a weekday evening. They could have been more creative…I don’t think they’ve acted responsibly….”

“Thurston County is very underserved…there are standards, and we’re not meeting them,” Stringfield concluded.

In between outbursts, many revenue producing ideas were offered: one girl said she would pay to take out DVD’s. Other ideas: fine for failure to pick up holds, and charges to use the computers and internet, charge for copies generated from the computers, charge for meeting room use, charge for a library card, charge for interlibrary loans, limit book checkout, charge for library programs, and more.

Reng suggested a fine for failure to pick up holds because, she said, each hold has to be handled 12 times to get to the end user. Suggestions included to limit the number of holds, or charge to ask for a hold. To some, it would appear that the TRL Board should examine and streamline the hold process.

With all the apparent problems and concerns with the economic imbalance Thurston County shoulders to fund the system, one man asked what it would take for Olympia to cede from the library system. Crose responded that it would go to the city council and take a ballot measure.

And what happened to Mr. Bragg? He was allowed to say his piece. His message included an educational account of the current TRL budget situation. “The budget crisis is a function of adding staff over a two year period by drawing on reserves, spending over $500,000 on a failed levy lid election and a recession which reduced new construction….”

Mr. Bragg covered budget suggestions, possible changes in the library’s administrative functions, library governance and internal TRL accountability issues, that if implemented, would help the library system in the long run.

Bragg mentioned legislation, HB 2200, sponsored by Representative Brendan Williams (D-22), and its companion bill, SB5999, that would provide representation on the TRL Board based on population, just as legislators represent their districts.

“Thurston County is the only one out of 16 counties…with over half the population of the district and less than half the votes on the library board. Passage of this legislation would help unify support for the Timberland Library. Thurston County has 57% of the voters in the TRL district so a more unified Thurston County would be crucial in any future election,” Bragg said. Both bills recently died in committee, March 12, without being heard.

Audience member Jim Lazar also came to the meeting prepared with budget and TRL governance suggestions. Lazar proposes to divide TRL into five separate county-wide library districts, each with trustees appointed by the county commissioners of that county. The current taxing authority of TRL would be dissolved and that taxing authority would be vested in the five county library districts.

With this scenario, Lazar believes it would be possible to pass a local one-county levy-lid lift, if the voters could be assured that all their increased taxes would go to providing library services in their county.

Eventually, the meeting concluded with Reng acknowledging that the Timberland Regional Library system could have done things better. “We as librarians don’t do politics much. We’re not as practiced as the schools are, for example. We probably could have done better,” Reng said.

“Well, I say, start learning!” said an unidentified guy from the back of the room.

Above: The TRL town hall meeting in Lacey on March 17 was much more civil than the one held in Olympia. Here, TRL Director Jodi Reng chats with Barbara Crane, board member of the Lacey Library. Crane says the Lacey library board meets once every couple of months to discuss issues specific to the Lacey library, such as theft, which is a significant problem. Crane says these meetings are open to the public.