Farmington Library trustee responds to leaked email

Last week, Farmington Voice contacted Farmington Community Library trustee Bill Largent for comment after an email he wrote was leaked on a library advocacy Facebook page. He submitted this response Tuesday: 

When I was appointed to the board of trustees in February 2018, the only firm measure of library utilization the board received was circulation; the number of materials checked out.

That number has gone down every month since. Every month. And labor costs have gone up. The previous board had been approving 4% increases across the board since 2014. While not all employees received the full 4%, the highest paid employees did, including in 2018/2019 FY.

The new board held raises to 2% in 2019/2020 and voted for no increases the 20/21 fiscal year which started July 1st.

This translates into more than a 20% increase over a 5-year period at a time when inflation was averaging approximately 1% per year.

I also pointed out when I joined the board that digital technology had and continued to change all aspects of business and that the library too needed to adapt.

There was significant pushback to this with the now former library Director and fellow board members telling me that I didn’t understand libraries.

I believe a comparable analogy exists with something we have been seeing the past few weeks in the news. The Post Office.

According to today’s WSJ “…there has been a significant drop in the Postal Service’s most profitable business line of first-class mail. The volume of first-class letters has fallen by nearly half from its 2001 peak to 54.9 billion letters last year, because of the shift to electronic communication.” In addition, the USPS reported a 3rd quarter loss of $2.2 billion on top of a $4.5 billion loss in for the quarter ending 3/31/20.

It isn’t the numbers that matter so much as the reason. People are communicating differently, and the post office hasn’t found a way to effectively respond.

People now access information differently and the board of trustees has backed a plan by the new director, Riti Grover, on how to respond. This include enhanced digital technology such as Tutor.com which will allow students and parents to access instructional materials at no cost.

We have implemented “curbside service” and are poised to increase the number of hours it is available.

But for the time being the physical library is closed and as a result our staffing needs are not what they were.

The media has focused on the complaints of a handful of disgruntled employees who argue loudly that the board does not understand the needs of the library and they must be recalled.

They have also called for my resignation and started a petition for my recall.

Is the broader community aware that under the direction of these same employees the library continued to lose patrons every month? Or the facilities had fallen into such a state of disrepair we were forced to spend over $200,000 in emergency repairs, including a 220-volt electrical cabinet that had water running in to the back of it and out onto the floor? This had been going on for so long, the back of the cabinet had rusted through and large chunks of metal were laying at the bottom of it.

The contractor who examined it before the repair, in response to a question from trustee Bob Hahn said in his opinion there was an 80% likelihood it would have led to an explosion and fire.

This was in the lower level of Liberty Street, where the children’s library is located.

As the result of a number of emergency measures we were forced to deal with, we contracted a firm to complete a “Building Health Assessment” which revealed more than $1.5 million in needed repair and replacement. This is now scheduled to be completed over the next two years, including immediate replacement of two elevators.

I need to point out that while we are addressing these needs, the previous board and senior management had approved replacement of the carpeting and paint.

We have also updated back office software to improve internal controls. Previously one person was responsible for Payroll, HR, Accounting and Finance.

We now have an automated Time & Attendance/HR suite, a new accounting platform and new processes which eliminates the internal control concerns. It also will provide for the first time vast reporting capability that will include not just basic information such as overtime costs, but also more than 200 reports to allow the Director and board to examine if the staffing levels and job descriptions match community/patron needs.

The board did not learn until late in 2019 that we even had overtime. In one case an employee was paid in excess of $130,000 using this “unknown” overtime opportunity.

All these advances came about as the result of the work of subcommittees that dug into the actual operations of the library.

The facilities committee, under the chairmanship of former trustee Mark Brucki, and now me, and the finance committee led by trustee Paul Huyck, a retired CPA worked closely with the new Director Grover, to implement these updates.

These committees did not exist before the new board was seated. In fact, I needed to make the motion to stand up these committees three times before it passed.

We also recently purchased a data analytics tool, the first library in the state of Michigan, that will allow us to identify patterns of use by zip code and equally important, areas of little or no utilization so that we can provide targeted marketing and program development, thereby increasing the value of the library to all citizens.

We are now in the final stages of analyzing a recent survey that attracted almost 2,200 responses to ten questions that is providing insights into what the community wants to see as their library continues to evolve.

In contrast, when I first joined the board of trustees, I made a motion that we table a matter until we could convene a stakeholder group of patrons, citizens, staff, board members and representatives of both city councils.

The motion never received a second as the chairman cut me off saying, “We don’t do that.” The current board of trustee’s unanimous support of the survey project underscores our commitment to listen to the community.

In closing, I might have been more delicate in my phrasing of the email calling for residents to respond to the allegations that all staff be recalled immediately.

But I stand by the message. The library is a community asset. It is not the property of a handful of staff members. The board of trustees has both the responsibility and the authority to manage all aspects of its operations as outlined in the 1989 District Library Act.

With more than one in five Michigan workers laid off, I strongly suspect few community taxpayers will be sympathetic to the argument that all library staff should be called back to work immediately.

Please recall, the basis for furlough was the response by Branch Manager Jaclyn Miller to the question, “can you confirm that staff is working” after having been paid for six weeks. Her answer was “No.” This was not a surprise as the libraries were closed and book publishers were neither printing nor shipping. What we initially believed would be a two-week shutdown while the state and country got “ahead of the curve”, was now looking to be a long-term closure mandated by Executive Orders from the Governor’s office. The board then voted 5-2 to furlough while continuing to pay healthcare and allow PTO to accrue.

Also, I must correct the misstatement made by former trustee Bomarito. She stated that I “…gloated about successfully leading an effort to block a library mileage… and how if the library didn’t proceed in the way he thought was the best way forward, he would do this again at the next millage.” During a wide-ranging phone conversation, I explained to Ms. Bomarito, who was new to the board, that my position is that trustees are representatives of the community. That residents are asked to fund many community assets, of which the library is but one and part of our role is to assure fiscal responsibility and maximize value.

I told her of working with a group of well-informed residents in defeating not once, but twice, a school bond issue, thereby saving residents nearly $90 million. That was in 2014. (I supported the library bond in 2004 vocally as a candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives 37th seat) I then explained that if we couldn’t increase utilization, I would be very supportive of asking for a reduced millage. Under the direction of Director Grover, it doesn’t appear a reduced millage will be necessary.

Far from “not knowing about libraries,” the board of trustees, in partnership with Director Grover, is positioning the Farmington Community Library to better serve a larger number of citizens and visitors.

Unlike the post office, the FCL is becoming the library of the future.

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