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Friday, June 15, 2018

Library Friends groups are fighting county eviction threat

A library book sale organized by the Friends of George Mason Library. 
Library Friends groups are engaged in a bitter dispute with the administrators of the Fairfax County Public Libraries (FCPL), who they say are trying to control their finances and are threatening to kick them out of the library if they don’t sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

The biggest point of contention in the MOU, adopted by the Library Board of Trustees in January, is a provision requiring Friends groups to turn over all their financial records to the FCPL.   

Friends groups believe the MOU is one-sided and say they would sign if they have a chance to make some modifications – but they’ve told they either have to sign it as is or be evicted. “We’re being told it’s our way or the highway,” says Charles Keener of the Friends of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library.

The Tysons Friends group, which has not signed the MOU, passed out flyers at its book sale earlier this month stating, “this may be our final book sale.”

The Friends of the George Mason, Reston, Centreville, Thomas Jefferson, and Kingstowne libraries also have not signed the MOU.

According to FCPL Director Jessica Hudson, the Kings Park, Dolly Madison, Martha Washington, Lorton, and City of Fairfax libraries have signed.

The Friends of Woodrow Wilson Library have also signed the MOU, reports Pat Jack of the Friends group. “We’re very small potatoes; this MOU really is aimed at the larger libraries that make a lot of money. We felt we could live with it. We thought about disbanding but felt we couldn’t do it to the staff.”

“It was not handled well by the trustees,” Jack says. “They tend to dictate and not collaborate.”

Keener believes some Friends are waiting to see if they are actually going to be evicted before signing.

Hudson says she hopes all of the Friends will eventually sign the MOU by July 31 but “we haven’t set a firm deadline.” If any Friends groups refuse to sign “we would work toward dissolution of our partnership,” she says, which means the Friends group would be “removed from the library space” and could no longer use the library name.

Lack of compromise

“If they treated us as equals, all of the issues could be resolved,” says Dennis Hays, chair of Fairfax Library Advocates. “We could probably hash it out in an hour or two. It is baffling why the county is antagonizing a group that has been so helpful to the library system.”

“If the friends were to go away, the ability of the library to serve the public would be severely impacted,” Hayes says.

Library Friends are volunteers, and many of them seniors. They put in countless hours supporting their local library branch and collectively raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – mostly from book sales – for library programs, landscaping, furniture, and much more. George Mason Friends pays for the countywide summer reading program.

Keener accuses Hudson of “dictating, threatening, and bullying, instead of being willing to compromise.” There has been a “great deal of mistrust, anger and sense of disrespect throughout the process,” he wrote in an email to County Executive Bryan Hill. “How is it going to look when they send marshals to throw out little old ladies who sell books?”

Hudson brushes aside the criticism, insisting “many Friends groups had an opportunity to have their feedback taken into account.”

There have been many meetings on the MOU, representatives of Friends groups acknowledge, but they say they aren’t being listened to.

“Every effort by Friends to offer an alternative MOU was completely rebuffed,” Keener says, and Friends’ request to have FCPL adopt a model MOU from the American Library Association was ignored.

Friends have also pointed to the county’s plan to use separate MOUs for friends groups that support Fairfax County parks and suggested FCPL do the same for library Friends.

According to Hudson, the library Friends groups generally have the same missions and do the same activities, so “having the same overarching document makes a lot of sense,” while the park friends groups are more varied.

Money grab?

The single biggest point of contention is the provision in the MOU calling for Friends to turn over detailed financial records to Fairfax County, despite the lack of evidence of any wrongdoing.

“We are fine with providing the same basic financial summaries we file with the Feds and which are presented in our treasurer reports at our board meetings and given to the branch manager,” Keener says. “But the director has told groups that they must provide copies of every receipt and copies of their actual bank records.”

Keener finds it especially insulting that “they are asking us to turn in every Costco receipt.”

“The concern is that some of the friends have reserves, and it appears the county would like to make use of them,” Hays says. “We literally give millions of dollars to the county.”

A lawyer specializing in nonprofit law hired by several Friends groups told them “the county has no legal right to demand such detailed internal records from a legally recognized independent nonprofit entity,” Keener notes.

“Throughout this process, we have not been treated as an equal party to a mutual agreement,” he says. “And now we are being outright bullied and threatened if we dare to uphold our legal rights and follow our conscience.”

“As a county taxpayer I am beyond angry to see this disrespect and abuse directed toward citizens who have given selflessly of their time for decades,” Keener says. “This is truly Big Brother run amok.”

Hudson defends the need for more financial information. “The library board feels strongly that it’s part of their fiduciary responsibility to provide transparency around monetary issues,” she says. “Friends want more transparency, too. We will provide them more information on how libraries use their money.”   

Hays and Keener would like to see the Board of Supervisors step in and resolve the issue. “The optics of having the friends goose-stepped out of the library is something the supervisors don’t want to visualize,” Hayes says.

Community center

Kathy Kaplan, a longtime advocate of the libraries, believes the current conflict with the Friends is an extension of previous attacks on the library system. That includes attempts to slash the FCPL budget,  the “beta plan” in 2013 to restructure how the branches operate, and the systematic effort to throw out thousands of books to make more space. 

The number of library books has been cut to 2.15 million, down from 3 million in 2004, Kaplan says, and FCPL is purchasing very few nonfiction books for adults, and almost no science, history, or philosophy books. Kaplan suspects the FCPL’s ultimate goal is to turn libraries into human services centers or community centers.

Hays notes the libraries already do a lot of community projects, such as bringing in guest speakers, hosting community groups in meeting rooms, and organizing children’ programs. But “turning the buildings into community centers with books along one wall is not what a library is.”

When asked about her vision for the library system, Hudson said libraries are not going to become community centers. “We are more of a community hub, with computer access and programming for children and adults,” she says. “We are continuing to meet baseline services – checking out books and reading programs for children, for example – and will build on that.”

Library advocates aren’t buying it. “This is part of a radical rightwing effort to destroy educational institutions in our state,” Kaplan says. “We need to have a functioning library that provides information for the public.”

18 comments:

  1. Your County government's actions & consequences on FCPL since 2004:

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/250626905/Graphic-Summary-of-Fairfax-County-Public-Library-Trends

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  2. Don't sign the MOU. Tell FCPL to go to hell. You can find other ways to support the community with those funds.

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  3. What is wrong with the County ,Library Board, and Library Administration ? Library Friends are the best "friends" and supporters our public libraries have. Why are you all treating them like unwelcome guests and criminal suspects ? Wake up !

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  4. While I believe some of the Friends groups do truly feel like they are being bullied, the fact is that the Friends exist to support their library branches despite the fact that they are technically independent. They provide an immense amount of man power and funding, which all staff appreciate. But they also rely on branches for space and book donations. Hence an MOU agreement.

    Of course libraries would like to make use of funds that are raised specifically for them. But some Friends think it's their place to dictate how and for what the money is used. And ultimately, they can. They can say no. And some of them do quite often. But shouldn't they rely on the expertise of staff to know what's really needed in the branch and community, not their own dated idea of what libraries are?

    If they truly want to support the branches, they shouldn't be hoarding hundreds of thousands of dollars (this is not an exaggeration for several of the largest groups) with no particular end goal in sight. Why do they need a 500k reserve? Or even a 100k reserve? I'm genuinely curious.

    I'm not implying that everything was handled perfectly by FCPL. But it's disingenuous at best and cynical pandering at worst to suggest FCPL has a nefarious agenda that's part of a "right wing conspiracy". Because the status quo is being challenged? Both parties have a responsibility to be transparent to each other and the public.

    And to go back and try to relitigate the absurd and outrageous book dumping allegations from years ago in the court of public opinion to get further sympathy is simply wrong. Especially coming from a supposed "library advocate". I could enumerate why the allegations are ridiculous, but we've been through this before, and the people quoted here already know why and choose to ignore the truth.

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    1. Part One.

      The by-laws of each Friends group differ, but to say they exist only to support the library is not correct. Many expand their outreach to include supporting literacy and other efforts in the community, things that do not directly financially benefit the library.

      I have not been a member of a Friends group for some time. I don't speak for any of them. I do speak for the library patrons who will lose millions of dollars over the next decade if Friends walk away in disgust at being accused of fraud and/or are evicted from their branches.

      Cuts to the library branches began in the year 2000 according to one retired librarian. Libraries sustained a big cut during the recession in 2008/9 when county executive Tony Griffin declared them to be non-essential. He was reported to have said frequently, "Who needs a library, I never use it." I later suggested to Sharon Bulova that perhaps the county paid the county executive too much money if he didn't have to use the library.

      The next county executive, Ed Long, demanded a 1/3 cut to the library budget in 2013 and the supervisors went along with that even though every dollar invested in a public library provides $3 to $10 in economic benefit to the community. Had the Beta Plan gone through all youth services in all the branches would have been cut.

      There would have been no more children's librarians. Requirements for librarians and other staffers to have BA and MLS degrees would have been replaced with the educational requirement for only two years of junior college. The budget would have been cut by 1/3.

      The supervisors were on board with this until Hunter Mill trustee Michael Cutrone asked for 30 days for community input to consider the plan. The Beta Plan very nearly went through except for the push back of library patrons.

      Because of the cuts to the library budget, Friends have been asked to provide furniture, carpeting, lighting fixtures for their branches. They pay for landscaping. Normally these things are provided in the county budget. The list of things provided by Friends is long. This county has decided not to provide these essentials for its citizens. Why? To me the answer is political.

      I didn't say "right wing conspiracy." I said radical right wing effort to destroy public education. There is a big difference between the right wing and the radical right. The radical right believes that if people cannot pay for things, they should do without and that includes access to books,information and public education. Despite what Tony Griffin said, a library is an essential part of public education.

      Since the book dumping you mentioned began in 2004, the collection has continued to shrink. There was significant loss to the collection during the period between when Sam Clay retired and new Library Director Jessica Hudson was hired. Since she took over, the collection has continued to shrink. As of January 2017 (from internal library documents), the collection is down to 2.15 million holdings from 3 million in 2004. That's the equivalent of eight and a half regional libraries.

      They buy books for kids, but not all the kids. Recently an entire double shelving unit, 12 to 16 ft in length was removed at Reston Regional. It housed young adult materials. When it has the option to preserve content or create open space in the library, the library chooses open space, in this case to the detriment of young adult readers.

      (Part Two below)

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    2. Part Two.

      How did we get to the point where Friends are being accused of fraud because they are successful and have endowments? In the winter of 2014 Sam Clay said to the library trustees, "We can TAKE the Friends' funds."

      The woman sitting next to me said, "This is the beginning of the county getting rid of the Friends." And so it has come to pass. Why? Because the county wants community centers, not libraries.

      I sat in the office of a supervisor a few years back with the president of a Friends' group when the supervisor insinuated as hard as he could that we were engaged in fraud because we had money in the bank. The Friends' group needed funds after the rebuild. I told the supervisor that my job at the Friends was to repair books that would otherwise be thrown away. They were given to children in Title I schools and other schools with high numbers of poor children, who according to their reading teachers, have ZERO books in their homes. Over the course of three years I mended and distributed between 7,000 and 8,000 books. The supervisor seemed surprised

      I am sure most of the supervisors have no idea what Library Friends do for the community. They would like the funds diverted elsewhere.

      Indeed, early versions of the MOU required funds to go to the General Fund. Trustee Miriam Smolen told Friends at a meeting that the funds would not necessarily be spent on the library. That was an early draft and was subsequently changed, but once funds go to the county, there is no way to track them.

      Funds in Friends bank accounts will eventually spent on the library. You can't say the same for funds diverted to the General Fund. Even funds put in a specific branch account in the county will go to the General Fund at the end of the fiscal year.

      I learned something of interest a couple years ago. Reston Friends, according to a board member, were not allowed to buy books for the library for a period of time. Sam wouldn't allow it. Think about that a minute. If you are successful at running used book sales and you can't buy books, the funds accrue in the bank. There is no fraud here.

      When Reston Regional is rebuilt the Friends will be out of a home for 4 to 5 years. They will need reserves to continue to support their business and keep their band of volunteers together. Once the new library is open, they will be asked to contribute funds for furniture, carpeting, shelving and funds to replace books that will be discarded when the library is closed. That will be a significant sum of money.

      My hope is that the current county executive, Bryan Hill, is cut from different cloth that the previous two very conservative county executives and will see what will be lost if Friends leave or are forced out.

      A Friend in the hand is worth about 10,000 in the bush.
      Or as my friend says, "Volunteers are not a renewable resource," even though Jessica Hudson thinks they grow on trees. Friends labor is worth $26.75 an hour. Friends provide thousands of hours of volunteer labor every year. Without that labor to produce book sales, the books that are donated are worth about $2 a box to a wholesaler. Sharon Bulova says the library provides everything. Not true. Without Friends there are no booksales, no revenue from booksales.

      My suggestion to the trustees, the superivsors, to the county executive is to end this unpleasantness and put the ALA sponsored MOU on the table so we can go on to other issues.

      Kathy Kaplan
      Fairfax Library Advocates

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  5. Some library Friends groups have hundreds of thousands of dollars in their accounts. The Friends groups should be spending a large percentage of the donations they receive each year on the libraries with which they are affiliated or Fairfax County library system as a whole. You'd think that the Fairfax County residents who donate money to a Friends group through a book sale or other means would not be happy to learn that their donations are not being used to help the libraries. There's no reason why any Friends group should have more than $20,000 or 30,000 in their account at the end of a year, let alone hundreds of thousands of dollars. Individual Fairfax County libraries and the library system as a whole are being deprived of important assistance from Friends groups that - for some unknown reason - prefer to see their accounts grow and grow rather than spending the donations they receive on libraries. Finding out why some groups have hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in their accounts would be a great news story. Back to the MOU. Read it. It doesn't require receipt information or anything like that. It simply requires basic overall revenue and expense information on a yearly basis. Any trustworthy and reputable nonprofit group should be able provide this information. https://research.fairfaxcounty.gov/ld.php?content_id=38825846

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    1. Lawyers with a specialty in non profit law have examined this MOU and find that it does indeed require library Friends to produce copies of every sales receipt. And the library Director has publicly said as much in meetings with various Friends groups.

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  6. These non-profits are completely separate entities. They can give their money to whomever they want and it's no ones' business how they conduct themselves unless something illegal is being alleged. Their reserves are their business. The county should welcome such wonderful volunteer efforts and this MOU effort is completely a money grab. The government on the other hand should be transparent because they are dealing with public money. Private non-profits have to report per the law but don't have to open their books to anyone. They are private corporations.

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  7. Anyone who actually believes that the County's Big Brother, money grab is innocent is living in a fantasy world. Anyone who believes than the library MOU railroading process has been balanced, respectful , or fair has clearly not been paying attention. The County is busily pushing this process to the brink of destroying groups which have served our libraries faithfully for decades - and pushing those same groups right out the door. SHAME.

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  8. The argument that that books sold by the Friends groups come from the libraries which gives them any rights is laughable. The libraries are turning digital and don't want the real estate anymore. They only want computer access so they don't have to keep hard copies. Would they rather throw them out? We all know they've done that before. Why not give them to the Friends groups to sell? This is really government overreach and very bad for relationships with their volunteers. I agree, SHAME on them.

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  9. Collectively, the FCPL Friends give hundreds of thousands of dollars to the County every year to support Fairfax County Public Library programs and collections. Almost no funding request by a branch manager to that branch's Friends group is not met or exceeded. System projects like the Summer Reading Program are also funded by Friends. There is zero evidence that the Friends are not supporting the funding requests they receive. So the issue is not what this or that group has in the bank but the County's desire to gain control of those funds . I would rather see the funds controlled and spent by the County citizens who have raised them and the governing boards elected by those County citizens than by Big Brother Fairfax County. With real problems facing our County why is County "leadership" so obsessed with shaking down dedicated library volunteers ? How about a bit more trust, appreciation, respect and mutuality rather than so much bullying and threatening ?

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    1. Which part of the MOU is taking control of Friend's money away? There is a link to the MOU in the article, so please cite the exact parts these groups have a problem with.

      And explain why these groups should not be transparent with how they spend the money get through the library? Any good non-profit should have good, transparent records. These groups have to file tax returns with the IRS and the State, so they must have the records, right? Shouldn't I as a citizen, library patron and Friends supporter be able to request an accounting of how the money they are raising is being used?

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    2. There is no issue of Friends not being transparent. As non profits we have to file information every year and that information is publicly available. Most Friends groups give out regular treasurer reports at their open meetings. Most library branch managers attend those meetings and get a copy. Not very secretive... The issue is Friends are being told that we can be required to produce copies of every sales receipt and every bank record. Such a fishing expedition is not legal now according to our lawyers but would be permitted IF we sign the MOU as written. That is one of several ways this MOU makes Friends more vulnerable to County intrusion and control. Ironically, the real issue of transparency is in reverse. For years half of all funds from ongoing book sales went to library admin. but there was no accounting of how those $$ were spent, how much was in that account etc. The Fairfax Federation actually called for an audit of those funds to get a clear answer to those questions. But the answer never came. Instead the County retaliated with a call that the library Friends should be audited.
      The MOU is really just a continuation of that same retaliation. Another result is that the percentage of ongoing book sale proceeds going to library admin. was reduced to merely the cost of collecting , reporting and returning those funds to the Friends. Every year the Friends give hundreds of thousands of dollars to the County yet our attempts to get an accounting of exactly how those funds are spent has been largely unsuccessful. This current MOU mess has actually led to promises that we will finally be given an accounting of funds given - a rare bright spot in this horror if it actually happens. Likewise we are told we will finally be told what the current balance is in the account to which Friends funds given to FCPL go. Clearly, it is the County/FCPL which needs to work on transparency - NOT the library Friends. The standards for a government agency should certainly not be lower than that which the County seeks to require of independent non profits like the Friends.

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  10. “This is part of a radical rightwing effort to destroy educational institutions in our state,” Kaplan says. Really??? Have you looked at the makeup of the County Supervisors? To call them even a little bit conservative is ridiculous. Quit blaming strawmen. Conservatives read books just like progressives and strongly support libraries in my experience.

    I applaud the Friends groups for their efforts to make up part of the funding that Fairfax County has diverted to other things in their efforts both to change the focus of libraries and to pay for all their new ideas. The efforts of the Friends groups doesn't sound political to me. It sounds like a group of people who want to make books available to those who want to read them. Go to a library and watch the children checking out books with their parents. Today I watched a boy of 7 or 8 checking out about 15 books. It was a very nice moment and is possible because of the library and the Friends groups.

    As for the county, please don't try to control everything in the world. The Friends groups do not seem to be doing anything wrong. Why try to control them?

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  11. To be honest, I think this all goes back to a time when the library budget was cut and someone from the Friends groups was upset enough to ask for an audit. If my memory isn't failing me, I believe that is the point where it started to escalate. The County was not pleased with that request and now they are flexing their muscle and shooting themselves in the foot to prove their point. So several Friends groups have shut down now and who really loses here? Those lovely kids who were checking out their books. It is really a sad state of affairs when the Friends groups do so much good.

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  12. The other day I was speaking with a member of the Reston Friends. I told her I had recently read some unflattering things about the Library written/posted by Friends groups and was curious as to exactly how much money the Reston Friends had in the bank. She replied that it was close to $1M! That's $1 with SIX zeroes attached! Now, I don't care what your purpose is as a nonprofit organization, but if you've got that kind of money sitting in the bank not benefitting your cause, there is a serious problem! I do not imply, and in fact am certain, that there is any fraud involved here. What I am curious about is why it is necessary for the Friends of the Reston Library to have so much cash on hand when, by their own contention, the library and Library System are in such need of financial assistance. I dug a bit deeper. One of the comment posters to this blog says the money is for post-renovation/construction expenses like furniture, shelving, etc. Really? A newly renovated or constructed library needs the Friends group to purchase furniture and shelving? I don't buy it for a second! No, more likely the Friends Groups who are unhappy with the proposed MOU simply aren't happy having to adhere to standard 5OC3 regulations for reporting their activities, be they IRS or Fairfax County rules & regulations. I've read the MOU. Nowhere in it is there any provision for "grabbing" the money raised by the Friends Groups. This is simple fear mongering by the Friends in an attempt to paint the County and/or the Library as the bag guy. I understand from Library staff that this MOU process has been going on for well over a year! Numerous meetings have been held and numerous changes made to the MOU to satisfy various Friends Groups. To me, this is simple.....Friends of the Library exist for the benefit of the Library System, not the other way around. Money raised under the auspices of Fairfax County Public Library belongs to the Fairfax County Public Library, not the Friends of the any particular library....despite what one comment here said about being able to spend the money on a variety of community things. Seems to me the reality is that the Friends need the Library a heck of a lot more than the Library needs the Friends. In fact, it sounds like these Groups are more trouble than they're worth. Oh, and if you're going to complain about the Library Director, you might want to learn what her name is. Just sayin'.

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    1. Recently read a similar article in the Fairfax Times. Their coverage of this issue seemed much more even handed than that of the Annandale Blog. As noted in the comment above and in the Times article, the MOU process is now well over a year old. The Times article lists the dates for the meetings that have been held with Friends Groups regarding the MOU. Why didn't the Annandlae Blog posting mention these efforts? Hmmmm!!

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