It’s been a tough year for the Leeds and Thousand Islands Library board, and not only because of the pandemic.
On June 8, the library finally secured its 2020 budget of $423,401, but only just. Three council members voted against passing the budget as it was presented.
“I think in light of the COVID crisis and the fact that we are having to reign in our budget at the township level, I think it’s important we get this right and because there was a surplus of $53,000 last year, and the budget has increased over last year, then to me maybe there’s some more pencil-scratching to do,” said Mayor Corinna Smith-Gatcke.
In early February, council deferred any decision on the library board’s 2020 budget until the trustees could show council a clear business plan and organization that highlighted the actual need to operate all three library branches in 2020.
On June 1, Brenda Lolley, chairwoman of library board, made a presentation to council that detailed the services provided by the libraries, compared service expectation and performance, compared costs with area municipalities and broke down the budget ask between administrative and operating expenses and between branches. The plan as presented did not include any future plans or goals.
“We all know that libraries are a very valuable service in the community, but it’s also important that we are providing equal service across the entire township,” said Smith-Gatcke.
While the budget as presented did include minor savings, several councillors expressed a desire to see more savings, especially this year.
“I think this is a drastic mistake to pass this budget. We are trying to scrimp and save in all areas and here we are passing a library board budget – which once we do we will have no control over – which doesn’t reflect many savings,” said Deputy Mayor Jeff Lackie.
The 2020 budget submitted by the library board, is slightly higher this year than it was last year, up from actual expenditures of $411,406 in 2019 to a $423,500 ask in 2020.
“The reason I oppose it is really I don’t trust the numbers, because I don’t think the checks and balances are there; $194,000 was accrued over several years without what I understand, the permission of council to retain that, and then it came back and then this year another $53,000 is coming back, so that makes me think the checks and balances just are not there,” said Coun. Mark Jamison.
The $194,000 Jamison referenced was a sum of municipal funds the Library board had placed, over the course of several years, into reserves without previous councils’ approval. This raised questions whether placing funds in reserves was contrary to the stipulations of the Public Libraries Act, which requires library boards to seek council approval to apply funds on anything other than what is approved in the budget they present each year.
Under the scrutiny of the present council the practice was reversed, according to the mayor; she said the township has recovered the $194,000.
Numerous attempts to reach every member of the library board with questions regarding the reserve fund the board had accumulated, and the $194,000 in particular, went unanswered, although board members did confirm receipt of the questions.
In spite of the discrepancies already mentioned, four council members felt that the library board had met all of their demands since budget deliberation, such as creating a business plan and a clear presentation, and as such should have its budget approved as submitted.
“There are many, many questions, but I’m going to stand on the side of passing this budget in the sense that they came back with what we asked them to do,” said Coun. Terry Fodey, adding: “watching over it is a different thing. We will be watching over it.”
Council had asked the library board to present a business plan along with its budget.
According to Lolley the board is currently developing a strategic plan that will help inform and guide future operations and service levels across all three library branches.
“In terms of our integrity as a council – we asked people to do something and they did it, now is not the time to turn around and kick them in the teeth,” said Coun. Gordon Ohlke, who sits on the library board.
At the end, Ohlke argued that after working closely with the board, he got the sense that they are a prudent group who want to act professionally, and move on from past missteps.
“I doubt they will spend all the money; I suspect they will return a significant portion of it at the end of the year,” said Ohlke.
While the budget passed in a four-to-three vote, council has made it clear it will be watching the library’s budget and expenditures over the next year closely until it is satisfied that the current library board understands its financial role.
According to the Public Libraries Act, council cannot control how the library board spends money, but they can ask for a full accounting of the funds they allocate the board.
“We will continue to ask questions to ensure that tax dollars are allocated as agreed upon,” concluded Smith-Gatcke.