There is certainly no shortage of opinions in town when it comes to the Forest Park Public Library. Some claim that funds are being mismanaged, with money being spent on everything but books and programming. Others accuse the library of treating its best employees as if they are disposable.
Library officials including Director Rodger Brayden and board President Debbie King dismiss these allegations, arguing that the library is doing its best with the limited resources it has.
Both sides have met with Mayor Anthony Calderone in recent weeks to discuss their concerns. That lead to Calderone calling a public meeting last Tuesday intended to help “reach a common ground.”
Calderone attempted to steer the discussion away from past mistakes and toward plans for the future, including a possible referendum, which would be the library’s first since 1993, when it moved into its current building.
“Their menial expenses have risen over a number of years to a point that they’re greater than their ability to make new money. At some point a referendum is probably going to be inevitable, but there is a significant amount of ill will feelings that we need to get beyond,” said Calderone.
These feelings were on full display at the meetings, as critics, including several members of the Friends of the Library, were unprepared to put the past behind them. “We judge the future by the past. This meeting is like trying to close the barn door after all the good horses got away,” said Friends member and Review columnist Jackie Schulz.
“The library never got enough money but always managed,” she continued. “If things were gone over with a fine-toothed comb, things could have been different.”
Schulz and others pointed to the firing of popular reference librarian Cynthia Maroon as the last straw, arguing that instead of letting employees go, the library could have reduced its expenses in other ways, such as holding back on replacing its carpets, which she said cost $80,000.
King explained that the new carpet came from the library’s capital improvements budget and that those funds could not have been used for wages. The library, she said, had to either cut back its staff or reduce its hours.
Scraping to get by
According to King, the library receives about 90 percent of its revenues from property tax dollars, with the remainder coming from late fees and fines. One suggestion on Tuesday was to increase those fines, but Calderone said he suspected that this would prove insufficient.
He said that he suspects much of the library’s financial trouble is a result of state property tax caps set at either the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or a maximum of 5 percent.
Calderone said he plans to hold another meeting to publicly review the library’s spending records, which he and King hope will put to rest the idea that money is being mismanaged.
King said that she and the board have met and will continue meeting with representatives from the Metropolitan Library Association to discuss the process of marketing a referendum to voters. She said a committee consisting of both board members and concerned citizens would be formed to determine exactly where the library needs help.
Areas needing the most attention, she said, were increasing staffing and salaries, increasing circulation, and purchasing more public computers.
Several attendees supported the referendum idea, including Ken Snyder, who joined the Friends of the Library the night of the meeting. “The problem of (excessive) workload goes back to staffing, staffing goes back to financing, and financing goes back to a referendum,” he said.
Skeptics, however, say they would not support a referendum as long as library board members are appointed by the Mayor, who they allege gives the jobs to the most connected candidates rather than the most qualified.
One former library employee, Barbara Plona, suggested that the solution is to abolish Forest Park’s commission form of government altogether so that future board members would be elected.
Calderone brushed off this suggestion as impractical. “OK, we’ll do that next week,” he jokingly replied.
“It may be a good sound-bite at the heat of the moment but certainly you could end up with deceiving elected board members just as easily as appointed board members,” he said.