BY Jason Emerson
In a vote that everyone involved said was a surprising result, the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL) had its proposed 2017-18 budget defeated by F-M area residents by more than 500 votes on Tuesday. While the election was about the library asking for a 4 percent budget increase next year that opponents felt was unwarranted, it was also about a concern over the governance and transparency of the library, as spearheaded by a group of local residents advocating a “no” vote on May 16.
“This 59 percent victory was a resounding rejection to the FFL’s 4 percent budget increase,” said Patti Giancola Knutsen, a member of the Citizens for a Transparent Fayetteville Free Library, the group that has been questioning the library for more than a year about its practices, procedures and financial management. “I know some people think our group was anti-library — that has nothing to do with it. We support our library … What started this was them denying access to information; that organically led to group of like-minded people coming to together. This was not just about the 4 percent increase, although that’s important, but about the clear and steady erosion of board engagement over the course of six years and a lack of transparency.”
The rejection means that the library loses about $70,000 (the size of the requested tax increase), which will force the library to cut staff increases “across the board” and “be creative” in how it makes cost savings this year, said Executive Director Sue Considine.
“We’re ready to tighten up and we will do this with grace and elegance, and we are committed to not cutting our service hours — that would be last, worst case scenario,” Considine said. “We want to make this adjustment seamless for our community of users; we don’t want them to suffer because of this. We won’t be accelerating programming, outreach efforts, marketing, other things, that an increase would support.”
Considine said no current library programs will be cut because of the budget rejection. “What exists today will exist tomorrow,” she said.
The FFL Board of Directors approved the library’s $1.8 million operating budget last January, to go before library district voters on May 16. The budget was an increase of $86,489 over 2016, or 4 percent, which was the “lowest level of increase in the last 19 years,” former board President Jim Brule said during the board’s Jan. 25 meeting. Originally, the board planned a 6 percent budget increase, but public concerns over library financial management caused the board to reduce its number.
Despite the lower increase, the Citizens for a Transparent Fayetteville Free Library group spent the past four months questioning the library’s management at board meetings, in writing, through newspaper letters to the editor and through social media. In recent weeks, yard signs advocating a no vote to the budget started appearing across the village as well.
In the end, the budget was defeated by a vote of 1,600 to 1,091.
“The F-M community has been following the issue and has been concerned about the direction of the Fayetteville Free Library. The fact that 20 percent more people turned out to vote this year versus last year, with twice the number of ‘no’ votes, shows that they support changes,” said Mary Karpinski, another member of the Citizens for a Transparent Fayetteville Free Library. “This action would not have been necessary if the FFL trustees had adhered to the state tax cap law and had full transparency.”
In addition to questions about financial transparency and management, the Citizens for a Transparent Fayetteville Free Library are continuing their call for the library to update its 1909 operating charter, add members to the board, seat public officials on the board, develop performance measures for the executive director and aspire to general best practices.
“We really trust and hope the current board [with four new members] will heed the warning that governance reforms are in order,” Knutsen said. “We hope board will aspire to best practices; we hope library learns to communicate more clearly and effectively with taxpayers. The way the budget was presented, they had ample opportunity to present their case, but they offered no rationale for tax increases and no reference to a strategic plan. Simply put, they failed in develop a compelling case to FFL taxpayers on why we should support a 4 percent tax increase. Period.”
For Considine, the budget rejection is an opportunity for the library to improve its public communications and continue its work putting its patrons first. As for the opposition group’s questions and concerns, some of them had merit, some of them are “nonsense,” but all of them were addressed months ago by the library board — but the library apparently did not do a good enough job informing the community, she said.
“In 17 my years here, I have never worried about the vote. Not once. This group very clearly identified three areas — finances, governance and structure, and our operating charter — and it is very clear we have addressed all of their questions clearly and repetitively, all the information has been on our website for months, but still, a letter comes out the week before our vote that makes false allegations and claims about the library, its finances, and the new thing that I am never reviewed — I’m reviewed every year, always have been,” Considine said. “These allegations are nonsense – these are the bylaws that are under review by the state, along with our charter — this group know that — but they chose an opportunistic, inflammatory moment right before the budget vote to make accusations. What they are really saying is: We want the library to run in a particular way and you’ re not doing it, therefore everything you’re doing is suspect.”
The FFL Board of Directors has a board retreat previously scheduled for next week, during which the budget vote and issues raised by community members will most likely be addressed, Considine said.
The board’s next public meeting is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, June 20, in the library board meeting room. That meeting, which is the board’s annual meeting, will see new board officers introduced and voted into office. While Considine said she could not speak for the incoming board leadership, she felt certain that at least a summary of actions the board have taken since the vote will be discussed.
“We’re fine; we’re taking this as we do all things, with a very positive approach. We will approve this new board leadership and through our processes we will continue to work hard every day to be sure that any information that is valuable to public is clear, truthful and easily accessible on our website. We feel we have been doing that well for the past year and will continue to do so as we move forward,” Considine said.
The Citizens for a Transparent Fayetteville Free Library said they will continue to monitor the library and its board and expect them to follow through on some financial and governance reforms.
“We hope we can work with the current board and share our findings so they can start asking the right questions and demanding answers,” Knutsen said.
For more information about the FFL, visit its website at fflib.org.
For information on Citizens for a Transparent Fayetteville Free Library, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/pg/VOTENOMAY16.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.