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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Bulova defends decision calling for audit of library friends

Following complaints by various library supporters about the Board of Supervisors’ Dec. 2 decision to impose an audit on friends of the library groups, Chair Sharon Bulova issued a lengthy statement explaining her reasons for the audit.

Terry Maynard of the Reston Citizens Association’s Reston 2020 Coordinating Committee, Kathy Kaplan, a library volunteer and advocate, and others had complained about the planned audit. They called it intimidation and suggested it was retaliation against those who had opposed the library system’s proposed reorganization last year, budget cuts, and aggressive book discard policy leading to the discovery of hundreds of thousands of books in dumpsters.

In a Dec. 18 letter to Maynard, Bulova says the friends groups are 501(c)3 organizations that operate under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Library Board of Trustees and provide a stream of revenue into the library system’s Departmental Gift Fund through the sale of books.

Is an audit needed?

The MOU requires the friends groups to maintain financial records and to comply with open record requirements, Bulova states, and “I do not believe the friends groups conduct audits. Additionally, their reporting practices are not consistent among different branches and they do not adhere to a single set of best practices.”

The library advocates had noted that while the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations had requested an audit of the public library system, it did not call for an audit of the friends groups. Bulova indicates that the friends groups also need to be audited because they are considered part of the library system.

“I can assure you that the Board of Supervisors, in responding to the federation’s request, was in no way seeking retribution against the friends groups,” Bulova states in the letter to Maynard. “Our board values the service the friends provide and appreciates the significant contributions they make to the FCPL system.” Having an independent audit “will help us demonstrate accountability to the civic and homeowner associations that have raised concerns.”

In addressing library advocates’ concerns about funding cuts, Bulova says, “The Board of Supervisors has had to make difficult decisions across the entire spectrum of county services since 2008 as we’ve struggled to maintain quality programs with less revenue. Recovery from the recession is slower than anyone expected. Like all county agencies, FCPL has been asked to hold open vacancies and do more with less.”

According to Bulova, a 2013 customer survey showed 95 percent of library patrons are satisfied with the libraries. She also said the library systems in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, Md., and Prince William County, Va., have lower per capita circulation rates than Fairfax County libraries, even though those counties spend more per capita on their libraries.

Kaplan took issue with Bulova’s contention that any comprehensive audit would require a review of the friends organizations.

According to Kaplan, library trustee Liz Clements made it clear during a meeting last summer that once the library gives books to friends groups, the books become the property of the friends. They are no longer considered county property, so there is no justification for an audit.

Friends groups angry

“Many of the friends are very angry” about the audit, Kaplan says. “This is no way to treat volunteers who have faithfully served the county library system for many years.”

Kaplan also raised questions about Bulova’s assertion that FCPL does a materials inventory every year. Kaplan says she filed a Freedom of Information Request in August for the FY 2014 Library Materials Inventory Report, and says, “I was told by Library Director Sam Clay’s office that it did not exist.”

Charles Fegen, chair of the Library Board of Trustees, defended Bulova’s actions in calling for an audit of the friends groups. In an email to Kaplan, Fegen says he believes “the problem is the word ‘audit.’”

“What the BoS is seeking is certain financial information which I hope is readily available,” Fegen says. “I also believe that it is the responsibility of the BoS to husband the accounts entrusted to it. While the books may be transferred to the friends groups, they are done so because the county believes you will use this asset and put the funds from the sale of these books to the use of the library.”

A library employee who’s been actively engaged in efforts to oppose county efforts to downgrade the library system, notes there is nothing in the MOU for the library friends requiring them use any specific financial methodology. Nor is there any requirement that friends groups follow consistent reporting practices among the branches.

Since no one has alleged any irregularity or impropriety against any friends group, the employee charges, there doesn’t seem to any justification in pursuing a taxpayer-funded audit.

Maynard also weighed in with a long response to Bulova’s letter.

For one thing, he questioned the 95 percent customer satisfaction statistic cited by Bulova. “This paper survey, given to and generally returned quickly by a few hundred rushed adult library users annually trying to leave the library who are willing to fill one out hardly represents an independent, systematic, balanced assessment,” Maynard says.

Maynard’s own data crunching revealed more troubling findings, including a 31 percent decline in “contacts per capita” from 2010 to 2013, a 20 percent drop in “library visits” per capita since 2010, a 54 percent drop in library website page views per capita since 2009, and a 42 percent drop since 2004 in the percentage of county residents that have library cards.

Maynard cites a 2014 survey showing the Fairfax County library system ranked 15th out of 19 public library systems in the Washington metropolitan area.

He also had trouble gaining access to the 2014 materials inventory and was told by FCPL staff that the report is being revised and will be available early next year. “I’m concerned that we are being stonewalled,” Maynard says, “because the county’s library materials inventory shrunk significantly again last year.”

An inventory is needed, he says, because of significant discrepancies in FCPL records. For  example, the 2013 materials inventory showed a net loss of 107,000 items from 2012, while the 2013 year-end collection overview report showed a net loss of 69,000 items.

Maynard says he can’t understand why Bulova insists that the Fairfax Federation wanted to include the friends groups and Library Foundation in the audit. There is nothing in the Fairfax Federation resolution calling for an audit of those groups. “If for whatever reason you want to audit these entities, own it; don’t say FCFCA asked for it,” Maynard tells Bulova.

Shrinking resources

The FCPL budget adopted in FY 2015 is $27.9 million, the same as it was in FY 2005, which reflects, on a real spending basis, a decline of 28 percent, Maynard notes. Meanwhile, the county’s total budget during that period has increased by nearly $1 billion.

During the past decade, the library workforce has declined by 14 percent, while the number of positions in the county government (excluding the schools) grew by 7 percent
Meanwhile, the number of library materials peaked at 2.8 million items in 2005 and slid to 2.3 million in 2013, a 16 percent reduction and a net loss of 444,000 items, Maynard says. That includes the loss of more than 500,000 books offset by the addition of about 77,000 “non-book” items.

“I am unaware of any other county department or agency that has suffered such disproportionate losses in funding, staffing, and critical material resources over the last decade, although they may exist,” he says.

Maynard also takes issue with Bulova’s comparison of FCPL with other library systems. Prince William County has a smaller tax base and is less affluent than Fairfax, but is willing to invest more heavily in its libraries on a per household basis. The fact that Fairfax County’s circulation rate is greater than Prince William’s simply shows that there is a greater demand for library services here, he says.

Bulova failed to mention Arlington or Loudoun counties, Maynard notes, which spend about twice as much on their libraries than Fairfax.


  1. Mr. Maynard fails to recognize the the county can't continue to spend lavishly on libraries while simultaneously spending millions to bail out the failed Lorton Workhouse Arts Center. Moreover, crying won't change the fact that the libraries will continue to operate just fine without these self-important advocates. One avenue that hasn't been explored is to contract out the operations of the libraries. That's worked well in other jurisdictions and it could benefit Fairfax as well.

    1. Privatizing public libraries is not something any actual library supporter would ever advocate. Contracting out library services degrades and devalues those services. "Worked well" is a subjective and ill informed statement. Privatization is a very BAD idea. It is time Fairfax County stopped looking for ever more
      foolish ways to cheapen library services - in every sense of the word.

    2. "Lavish"? How can you say that when Fairfax County spends less per capita on its libraries than any other library system in the Metro DC area??
      I do agree that the Workhouse is a sink hole--that the Board keeps digging deeper.

    3. > Lorton Workhouse Arts Center

      "Art : A Great Retirement Hobby!"

  2. Sharon Bulova should be ashamed to go after the library Friends who have been one of the few bright spots in a library system gutted by the Board of Supervisors by year after year of cuts to staff, materials and services. The Friends help fund magazine and newspaper subscriptions, library programs for all ages, training for staff , branch landscaping and furnishing and many other items our libraries could no longer provide otherwise due to draconian budget cuts. There is ZERO justification for this harassment of the library Friends. Let's focus on rebuilding and strengthening our libraries instead of investigating their strongest supporters at tax payers' expense. HANDS OFF THE LIBRARY FRIENDS !!!

  3. Sharon Bulova - I hope you were not planning to run for re-election

    1. Hilarious! I hate to be condescending, but the Dems have a hammerlock on Fairfax and that won't change. There's no evidence to suggest that escalating taxes or the complaints of a small group of self-absorbed book lovers will affect the current political balance of power. Moreover, I doubt if anyone would base a campaign on a "pro-library" agenda. That would, in effect, be the same as advocating even higher taxes. I'm hoping that the GOP will take a run at Penny Gross next year if she decides to continue playing supervisor-for-life. However, that'll require some citizens to get out their wallets and get off their duffs to help with the campaign. So, don't hold your breath.

    2. I am in to get off my duff and my wallet and help. I think many people are ready for a change. I really hope a Republican or an Independent run for her slot. I can not support a Dem at this time because Sharon Bulova will bully them into doing things her way.

    3. The last time I checked the date of the next Fairfax County Board of Supervisors election, November 3, 2015, is less than 11 months away.

      I sure would like to know who is the potential opponent to Penny Gross who is going to offer "change" and get all those Mason District residents craving "change" to get off their duffs and open their wallets. Is there a date by which this hoped for candidate will come forward?

      You know, saying you are willing to get off your duff if something happens, when you know deep down inside that something is not going to happen, is the same as sitting on your couch and complaining to those around you but otherwise doing nothing.

    4. You get what you pay for. FCPL receives less than 1% of your tax dollars. You can blame Republicans for that. Who wants less gov't services? Who doesn't want to pay taxes for services? Mike Frey says more revenue is needed but will he vote on it? No.

  4. I love the library and I greatly appreciate all the work done by the friends groups. I am, however, an even bigger fan of good corporate governance and that means regular periodic financial oversight of tax-exempt organizations.

  5. how much longer are we going to blame a slow recovery from the recession as an excuse to cut services like libraries? that's just admitting failure to predict and failure to react.