Friday, December 5, 2008

McDonald calls for county investigation of Library System's role

Following negotiations with representatives of the Library System of Lancaster County on Thursday, the county commissioners indicated to NewsLanc that they are not likely to give the system its requested $150,000 increase.

The $2.15 million in the proposed 2009 budget reflects a 6.5% decrease from the $2.3 million the library system received from the county in 2008.

Jill Brewster, chair of the library system's financial board, said that the library system had crafted their budget before events in the national economy took a hard toll on their finances and that county departments have only been asked to take cuts of 3% each.

She said the library system would have liked more communication from the commissioners before they crafted their budget including the cut.

Bud Rettew, president of the library system board, said he is "very much fearful" that not only will library programs suffer, but that the commissioners would be setting a poor precedent for municipalities.

Commissioner Scott Martin rejoined that the county is dealing with cuts and flat funding from the state just like the library board is and that every single county department has faced cuts in the current environment.

"So it's a really tough sale," he said.

"I love libraries...but I also love children with mental retardation... and kids that are abused," he added, referring to the services other county departments provide.

Democratic Commissioner Craig Lehman said he thinks the budget is fair, although he would have been amenable to a cut of only 3% for the library system.

Commissioner Chairman Dennis Stuckey said that the recently-announced state spending freeze is another factor that will make it "very difficult to restore funding to previous levels."

He added that the board "ha[s] been very fair in our judgments in the money that we had to withhold or cut allocations to outside agencies" and also successfully avoided cutting jobs.

Others have questioned whether the library system is efficiently using the county funding it receives. Of the more than $2 million the system receives, only $150,000 of that will be distributed to the individual libraries for operational costs this year, according to their own admission.

Where does the rest of the money go?

That's a good question, says Steve McDonald, who is the Recorder of Deeds for the county but spoke to the commissioners in his capacity as a taxpayer.

"All the money the county is giving is going to fund a - for lack of better words - a bureaucracy," he said in apparent reference to the Library System, rather than to the 16 independent libraries.

McDonald added that there is little oversight over the process except by part-time volunteer boards for both the System and the 16 libraries who operate largely at the direction of paid support staff.

He noted that the system pays around $140,000 a year to rent spacious offices near Greenfield Road on a 10-year lease which expires in 2012 and said that their financial audits and statements reveal that not all state funding gets distributed to the libraries.

He went on to indicate that raises for directors of the individual libraries have been as high as 7%.

McDonald concluded by arguing that the commissioners should investigate how county money is being spent, that funding should be made "contingent on the services they actually provide," and that it might be helpful for the library system to become a county department.

Commissioners Stuckey and Martin agreed that the County Controller's office has the right to examine the finances of any entity receiving county funding, but, when questioned, refused to immediately agree that such an investigation is warranted in this situation.

Instead, each of the commissioners spoke in generalities about the necessity of watching where county money goes.

Lehman said he could not make a decision so quickly as to whether the points McDonald and others have raised are valid.

Stuckey added that the county has other priorities to deal with first.

NewsLanc will conduct further research and we will continue to raise this issue at public meetings.