|A book sale hosted by the Friends of George Mason Regional Library.|
Members of Friends groups who support Fairfax County public libraries are upset about proposed policy changes under consideration by the Library Board of Trustees that they say would tie their hands and take away some of their revenue.
A key point of contention is a provision in a proposed memorandum of understanding (MOU) that library advocates call a “money grab.”
The MOU calls for friends groups to be able to only retain in reserve no more than three times their yearly contribution to the library. Any funds in excess of that amount would have to be handed over to the library.
The proposed MOU drew sharp criticism from library advocates when it was presented at a May 30 meeting by trustee Miriam Smolen, chair of the board’s Ad Hoc MOU and Budget committees, and Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) Director Jessica Hudson.
Friends groups are independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations made up of volunteers. They raise money – mostly from used book sales – for children’s programs, furniture, landscaping, and other things FCPL can’t or won’t pay for.
Friends groups fight back
The MOU also calls for all friends groups to be subject to the same requirements for auditing, licensing, indemnification.
That would be a hardship for small organizations and they might have to fold, said Dennis Hayes, chair of Fairfax Library Advocates and a member of the board of the Friends of the Reston Regional Library.
A one-size-fits-all MOU that treats all friends groups the same regardless of their size, the way they operate, and the type of community they serve doesn’t make sense Hays said. “That’s killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
“We are in compliance with all requirements,” said Hays, who notes that friends groups already file financial forms available to the public. “The county doesn’t have any right to tell us how to run our internal affairs.”
“Libraries have taken a disproportionate hit in the county budget over the past 10 to 12 years,” Hays said. “Now they are trying to take money raised by the friends. It’s a concern.” He believes the new MOU is coming from an attitude within the county where “they’re looking to garner all resources they can from every source.”
“Collectively, we contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” Hays said. “We’re volunteers. If it turns out our work doesn’t make a contribution, it would make it very difficult to continue.”
A former library branch manager noted that the friends groups with more resources help support smaller libraries that get less support in their communities.
“We don’t understand how the county can specify how we spend our money,” said Nancy Allard, treasurer of the Friends of George Mason Regional Library in Annandale, although she notes the GM friends group has not taken an official position on the matter.
If the new MOU is implemented, the GM friends group might decline to sign it, even if that means the group will lose its space in the library and can no longer put on book sales. “We would still be able to provide our existing funds to the library and support the library in other ways.”
While friends groups don’t get money from the county, they are given physical space in libraries, and that’s the justification for the trustees in exerting more control.
There are certain things in the existing MOU that need updating, Hudson said. For example, the county wants to ensure friends groups are formally registered in Virginia and that they provide access to their fiscal records on a yearly basis. Licensing agreements are needed to spell out the spaces they are given in libraries, she said.
Hudson said she isn’t aware of any financial abuses and that the new MOU is merely needed as a preventive measure. These changes would protect the friends groups and “are for the benefit of both sides.”
Hudson said the characterization of the MOU as a money grab “is taken slightly out of context.”
The ad hoc MOU committee assumed the procedures for sending excess funds to the library would be worked out through the library administration or branch, she said, with those funds used for general library programs. She conceded that provision needs to be better defined.
“The friends are wonderful people who work very hard. We don’t want to make them feel disrespected or that their work is not valued,” Hudson said. “We would not do anything to egregiously harm the friends groups.” They give the library system “oodles of money.”
But some friends groups have socked away “half a million dollars,” she said. “We want to find good ways to spend that money, not just have it sit there.”
When asked to name libraries with large amounts of money, she cited Reston Regional Library, which is saving funds for a renovation, and George Mason Regional Library in Annandale.
The Friends of George Mason Regional Library has a lot of money because “the library has not identified projects for us to spend it on,” Allard said. Three or four years ago, the friends proposed replacing the outdated circulation desk but the library director at the time opposed the project because of pending changes in library procedures.
In addition, Allard said, the group is concerned its semi-annual book sales are not raising as much money as they used to – they aren’t attracting as many book dealers – so the group is saving its revenue to ensure it will continue to be able to support the library.
The George Mason friends group donates $50,000 a year to the library system’s summer reading program and provides funds to the Library Foundation and Fall for the Book. This year the group donated $20,000 for professional development for library staff and established a scholarship with the foundation for an employee to pursue graduate studies in library science.
“We try to be generous and support the library in a wise way. But we’re not going to just spend money for the sake of spending it if the library system doesn’t make a request,” Allard said.
The MOU will be discussed again at the next meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee, although a date hasn’t been set, Hudson said. Meanwhile, “the committee will consider all comments.”