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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Library volunteers oppose 'money grab' by Fairfax County Public Libraries

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.

Financial oversight

“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.”

Excess funds

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.”


  1. Fairfax County has proposed similar changes to agreements with other friends groups, including friends of parks. It seems to be a wrong-headed approach that regards volunteers as mere agents of the county. It will decidedly not motivate volunteerism.

  2. Beloved Community6/6/17, 4:52 PM

    Expenditures of funds raised by the library Friends should be controlled by the community-elected boards which govern each Friends group - not by "Big Brother" Fairfax County.

    1. Does anyone know the legality of "Big Brother" seizing funds from volunteers of a duly recognized 501(c)3 organization which is legally compliant with all of the IRS' US Codes ? Is there any prescience of this happening in the commonwealth, specifically in Fairfax County ?

    2. The "community" doesn't elect the Friends boards. The Friends gaggles gets together and do. Stop making mountains out of molehills. Big Brother? Seriously? That's pathetic and anyone that buys into this crap rhetoric is pathetic.

  3. I'm sorry to see such antagonistic language used here. "Money grab", "fighting, "Big Brother"-- library staff and our communities love our friends groups. They do so much amazing volunteer work. I'm confident that this can be worked out in a respectful way, despite this type of rhetoric.

  4. Who wants to bet that after demanding that friends groups hand over more money, that Fairfax County then cuts the budget of libraries further?

  5. Q & A from the Library Board of Trustees ad hoc MOU Committee Meeting May 30, 2017 10:00 AM

    6. If the proposed three times holding limit were put into place, where would the excess funds be deposited? Would there be exceptions to the three times holding limit, if something like that were put in place?

    The idea behind the holding limit is to ensure that monies raised through the sale of Library donated material, or efforts by the Friends on behalf of the Library, are spent for the FOL branch, or the Library as a whole, in a timely manner or dedicated to a specific future plan or project for the Library, rather than be held by a FOL group for an indefinite period of time. The
    goal of transparency of the use of monies donated to the Library through the FOL groups would be served in this way. The idea of a holding limit included the concept that if a FOL group had a longer term project planned, it could share that plan with the Library to support holding funds above the proposed three times limit for a longer period of time. The question of how the holding limit would work was raised by several people and will require further work and consideration from the committee, but there is no intention for FOL funds to be diverted away from the Library.

  6. It would be interesting to know what has occurred that inspired the County proposal, particularly regarding excess funds. I had no idea the Friends did so much - scholarships, etc., etc. If they have reserve funds, perhaps the GM Regional Library could find creative proposals for those funds, rather than simply asking for the money. Otherwise, they are pointlessly insulting the goose that lays the golden eggs.

  7. If I were a board member of the non-profit, a totally separate entity from the county, I would completely oppose this agreement. These are entities that work together for the benefit of a Library or a Park. It should not be up to the Library, Park or any other entity how money is allocated. Perhaps the county would enjoy no volunteer efforts. They seem to put no dollar value on the thousands of volunteer hours that are donated and that they are the beneficiaries of, they want more. This is completely misguided imho. The county should form it's own entity that carries liability insurance for all of these groups like the Park Alliance does in San Francisco. These problems can be solved. If the Park Foundation were not run by the Park Authority this could be a function they provide to all their friends groups who provide all these volunteer hours and services. But since they are virtually part of the county that can't happen. There's a Library Foundation that could provide benefits to their friends groups, but they'd rather have the free labor while running off with the hard-earned proceeds.

  8. At no time during the meeting did Miriam indicate the excess funds would be pulled from the Friends (how exactly would they do that any way...we'd have to transfer the money, and likely none of us would). She actually said they had not thought that far ahead (I suspect someone has thought about this but may not be willing to share their thoughts). There's a lot of hyperbole in this string of comments; maybe we should actually wait until the concept is a bit more fleshed out before jumping all the way to the "money grab" conclusion. I think both Miriam and Jessica learned quite a bit more about how the Friends operate during the meeting. Perhaps it's just that the BOT wants the Friends to spend the money as it was intended (having a strategic plan would of course facilitate the spending process) and ensure the Friends are protected (against fraud, liability, etc.). Just because there has been no fraud doesn't mean there won't be any. jfp

  9. Library Friends are expected to purchase furniture when their branches are renovated or rebuilt, as Tysons-Pimmit is being renovated and as as Reston Regional will be rebuilt. Library furniture is very expensive. They also provide carpeting and have been asked to pay for new lighting fixtures. Friends also provide ALL of the funds for youth programs in the system.

    Funds not yet allocated aren't "just sitting there." They are held in reserve for future use. Under the proposed MOU change, funds extracted from the Friends and not spent by the end of the fiscal year will be folded into the General Fund. Once in the General Fund, there is no way to track how the funds are spent.

    Library Friends are Virginia nonprofit corporations and are protected by Virginia law. I hope that the Friends will seek legal representation.

    This is a money grab by a county that has not and does not value its library as an essential service to the community.