The county's laissez-faire approach to the library
by Chris Busby
It's no big deal to have an overdue library book or two. Almost everyone has done this at one time or another. And most folks return the books in short order and pay the small fine, mildly rebuking themselves for their absent-mindedness.
Monroe County's Republican leaders have a similar attitude about their responsibilities to the Monroe County Library System. But the consequences for the cash-strapped system --- which has already slashed operating hours, jobs, and services to a bare-bones level --- are potentially much greater.
For example, members of the MCLS board of trustees are nominated or reappointed by the president of the county legislature --- in this case, Republican Dennis Pelletier --- and confirmed by the legislature as a whole. Roughly half of the 11 trustees are currently serving beyond their terms, because Pelletier hasn't gotten around to addressing the matter.
This isn't the end of the world, as trustees can legally serve beyond their terms. And, as Pelletier points out, the county has other, more pressing matters to attend to. "Sometimes, if things are running and there's no apparent problems, you don't tend to fix them, even though some of the appointments may be late," he says. "We have other boards and committees that have some of those similar problems."
"The [library] board is functioning," he says. "They do continue to serve, so I assume that they're still being a valuable asset to the board."
Fair enough. Carole Joyce, the library system's interim director, isn't overly concerned either, though she did bring the matter to Deputy County Executive Dick Mackey's attention in April. "I don't think they had realized it had gotten to that point," she says of the late appointments. "Legally, there is not an issue. But when it goes on for a while, it's sort of like --- you like to keep things up to pace."
Joyce says Mackey told her the appointments would be on the June legislative agenda. They're not. Pelletier doesn't have a specific timeframe. "I would like to get to it this summer, but I don't want to unduly commit myself," he says, reasoning that if he misses a deadline he himself sets, he'll be criticized.
The library system is also supposed to have a liaison in the county legislature. This legislator, chosen by the majority party (again, the Republicans), attends library board meetings and works and advocates on behalf of the system.
For example, Joyce says library liaison Karla Boyce --- a Republican representing parts of Pittsford, Mendon, Rush, and Wheatland --- helped the library secure a grant to help people with disabilities access its computers.
That was a couple of years ago, as Joyce recalls. She also recalls that it's been a couple of years since Boyce was the liaison.
She says she also mentioned this need to Mackey. "I did ask him if we could have someone from the legislature, because it's very important from our side, and I think also from [their side]," Joyce says. "His office is supposed to be working on it," she adds, though she says she's not sure how the process works.
In fact, says Pelletier, it's his responsibility to appoint a liaison. But, again, he just hasn't gotten around to it.
However, he says the library still does have a liaison: Karla Boyce. She's just been too busy with other things --- a new job, kids, other meetings --- to fulfill that obligation.
(Boyce did not return a call from City seeking comment; Pelletier said he was responding on her behalf, at her request. Last summer, when City contacted Boyce for comment on the library's budget crisis, she failed to respond at all. Boyce is listed as the liaison in the county's official 2002 and 2003 directories. However, a library advocate says Boyce has been telling people who contact her expressing concerns about the library's fate that she is not the liaison.)
"We are on many boards and commissions, and represent various towns," says Pelletier, who, like Boyce, represents parts of four towns. "There's monthly committee meetings and other responsibilities --- Eagle Scout awards, I mean, you know, the whole gambit. It's a matter of finding someone who can have the time and devote it. However, that's not to say not having one is, generally, in any way, deleterious to the board.
"Keep in mind that most, I think, of the legislators, with the exception of myself, work a full-time job outside of the legislature," he adds.
Finally, and most importantly, the county is one of the library system's principal sources of funding. It's specifically responsible for the Central Library --- which consists of the Rundel Library Building and the Bausch & Lomb Public Library Building --- providing over 65 percent of the Central Library's budget.
An agreement reached between the county, the library system, and the city (another key funder) in the late 1960s stipulates that the county provide the other two parties with its library budget figure in April. Because the three entities have different fiscal years, knowing what the county's share will be come fall helps the city and system budget accordingly.
The county has now failed to provide that figure for the second year in a row. When this happened last year, former MCLS director Richard Panz said the delay was unprecedented in his 13 years in the position ("Library in limbo," City Newspaper, July 3, 2002).
Joyce says the library got $6.4 million from the county this year, $940,000 less than it received the year before. The county budget office, she says, "has told us that we can expect a zero-percent increase" in 2004.
Even that level of county funding, however, is not guaranteed. Again, the county has not provided its 2004 budget figure. Mackey did not respond to a request from City for comment.
"We were able to cut this year, but there's not anything else left," Joyce says, noting that, among other austerity measures, the Rochester Public Library has eliminated 50 fulltime positions. She says another cut in county funding this time could force a decrease in operating hours, which in turn would jeopardize state funding. "Then it becomes a real issue," she says.