Members of the Chattanooga City Council are asking Mayor Tim Kelly’s office to improve oversight of the library by having it report directly to city government, which would require a change in state law.
The director of the Chattanooga Public Library said she does not anticipate the action will result any fundamental changes in how the organization functions.
City Chief Financial Officer Brent Goldberg told council members during a meeting this month that the city would be overhauling the structure of the library to “ensure accountability and oversight,” while also guaranteeing there is “great programming that is done equitably across the city.”
That will involve seeking a change in state law to allow the library to report directly to the mayor instead of an independent governing board. Members of the library board are appointed by the mayor and approved by the council. They only have hiring and firing power over the executive director.
In the immediate term, Goldberg said, the city will require the library to submit all purchases of more than $25,000 to the council instead of the library board. Council members will begin seeing those purchases as early as this week, he said. The city will also require the library board to report regularly to the council.
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The board’s budget is already subject to approval by the council.
The library used to be jointly funded by both the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, but after the dissolution of a sales tax agreement under the tenure of former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, almost all of its funding now comes from the city. The rest comes from book fines, book sales and other revenue.
Library Board Chairman William Sundquist said the body welcomes conversations with the city.
“We’re always happy to find ways to make the library better,” he said by phone. “I’ve been volunteering and supporting the Chattanooga Public Library for well over a decade, so the more people we can get through that door the better.”
While diving into the budget, Councilwoman Marvene Noel, of Orchard Knob, said she noticed the bulk of the library’s approximately $7.3 million allocation from the city for fiscal year 2023, which lasts from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, is going to salary.
Noel said she had questions at the onset of the budget planning process about the return the city was receiving from its investment and how the library was helping underserved neighborhoods.
“How is it that we give $7.3 million to someone that does not have to answer back to us as to how that money is spent?” she said in an interview. “We should be good stewards over the finances. I have an issue when that is not done that way.”
Noel said when the city provides smaller sums to organizations that assist underserved neighborhoods, it oversees every penny. She wants to know why the library isn’t subject to the same scrutiny.
“I just think we have not received the benefit from the library that would constitute the $7.3 million,” Noel said. “I don’t know what they have done with that that would make sense.”
Chattanooga City Council wants more oversight of public library
The library’s proposed fiscal year 2023 operating budget sets aside a little more than $6.2 million for salaries, wages and fringe benefits. The remaining $1.5 million of its $7.7 million budget goes to operating expenses, including services, supplies and other costs.
Goldberg said staff evaluated the library’s budget to determine how a change in funding would affect the organization.
“Any significant cuts to the library will mean that they will immediately have to have layoffs,” he said, “so any significant change in library funding means we are cutting people’s jobs immediately. Even if we do just minor changes in funding, that means that they’ll have to reduce the amount that they provide for employee raises.”
The mayor’s 2023 budget includes a 3% cost-of-living adjustment for staff, which brings the city’s minimum wage to $15.45 an hour.
“We do support the library staff and the programming that they deliver every day,” Goldberg said. “There’s a wide variety of programming … and we think it’s prudent to take a year to make the necessary changes to the governance of the library and take a top-down approach.”
Council Vice Chairwoman Raquetta Dotley, of East Lake, said she appreciated Kelly’s administration for “taking a top-down approach to addressing accountability.”
“I do support the library,” she said. “The kids I serve, we go to the library because it’s free. It’s a free trip, but I wasn’t a fan of it in its current form.”
Councilman Chip Henderson, of Lookout Valley, said it could be beneficial for the mayor to reappoint members of the library board. He said he would like to see measurable effects from the money Chattanooga is investing in the organization. Additionally, he doesn’t think the city is extracting the greatest benefit from the library’s downtown branch.
“I would like us to see the maximum potential use out of that building, whatever that may look like,” he said.
Corinne Hill, the library’s executive director, told the Times Free Press by phone Monday that the proportion of money the organization reserves for salaries versus operating expenses aligns with funding priorities found in any other library or government agency.
“What we do is deliver services,” Hill said. “That’s like saying, ‘Why do we have all these garbage truck drivers?'”
Overall, most of the city’s proposed 2023 operating budget goes to salaries, according to the mayor’s office. About 62% of the city’s general fund expenses go to salaries and benefits, but that proportion can be higher at the individual department level.
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For example, about 78% of all police expenses are salaries or benefits, and wages and benefits in the Fire Department make up $9 out of every $10 in general fund expenditures.
Hill said Monday that, regardless of whether the organization reports to an independent governing board or the mayor’s office, she does not expect any tangible changes in how the library operates.
Everyone who works there is already a city employee, Hill said, and the organization follows city rules. The city’s legal department reviews every contract, the city’s purchasing department reviews every purchase and the city’s human resources department reviews all employment decisions, she said.
“We have incredible, tremendous oversight about how we run our business,” she said. “Whatever the city decides to do or whatever the state decides to do is not going to impact how we operate. It’s going to be exactly the same.”
She added that the library employs highly trained, skilled and educated people to provide programs for children and adults.
“They’re not just sitting around babysitting people,” Hill said. “They’re actively engaged with the people who come into our building. The biggest value that we bring to the community is the staff we have. That is the service we provide. Government is a service industry.”
Contact David Floyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd†