Farmington Community Library trustees say they voted to furlough 82 employees out of concern for how the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic may affect library finances.
Some who commented during the board’s Tuesday electronic meeting, however, said the library’s budget is in no immediate danger and furloughed staff were providing valuable services.
About 100 participants watched the meeting on Zoom, with some making comments on camera and others using the platform’s chat feature during the meeting. Board President Jim White said the board also received 30 written comments critical of the decision.
White said some comments “may have sprung from misunderstanding of the action taken”.
Furlough “allows employees to pursue the maximum amount of benefits available. We know in this environment, that is easier said than done. We know how much stress this is causing,” he said.
Digital services uninterrupted
White stressed the decision was made by the board, and not library director Riti Grover. She was tasked with determining which employees were essential to library operations.
Both the Farmington and Farmington Hills buildings have been closed since March 14, to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the system has grown its digital footprint with new and expanded online services.
White said while the board was initially advised that staff would be eligible for continuation of benefits through COBRA, trustees have learned the library can instead pay premiums to continue existing health insurance.
The 17 staff members who remain will continue to provide uninterrupted digital services, White said, and are looking at ways to enhance and expand what’s available online.
Those services were the focus of Mary Klawneder’s public comment. As a teacher, she said, providing students with meaningful remote lessons has required a full range of support staff.
“The library is no different. In fact, it is more difficult given the wide range of people the library serves,” she said. “We need our entire team back in order to keep our library open whether it is physically or virtually.”
No economic crisis
Lisa Vanstone said the furlough solves “an economic crisis that does not exist.” The library receives revenues through a dedicated millage; its budget year runs July 1-June 30.
“Farmington Community Library will not incur any loss of funding until June 30,” she said. “To be very clear, the library is not broke.”
Vanstone said that many libraries in the Metronet consortium still pay their library staff, “because they value their employees”. Referring to the Michigan Public Library Trustee Manual, she said trustees overstepped their duties, as Grover is solely responsible for library operations, including budget recommendations.
Eugene Greenstein said he supports the board’s decision, because no one knows when the library will reopen or how the pandemic will affect the tax base.
“The library board has a responsibility to spend the money wisely. They have to preserve the library,” he said. “The board has a right to ensure the economics of the taxpayer are protected. It’s not a charity.”
Commenter Eric Burns said any loss in tax revenues would affect the next year’s budget. He criticized inaccurate communications with staff and said there “definitely does not appear to be any sort of plan in place here.”
’Bird’s eye view’
Trustees approved the furlough for “non-essential” employees with a 5-2 vote during a Thursday, April 23 meeting. White said the special meeting was scheduled during the board’s regular April 21 meeting and noticed on the library’s website.
According to meeting minutes posted on the library website, the furlough decision was based on a recommendation from consulting attorney Michael Blum. Board Vice President Joy Montgomery, who also chairs the Personnel Committee, said Tuesday that both Blum and Grover were included in committee meetings, and the public doesn’t always see the “bird’s eye view”.
“Our job as a board is to see the budget and the big picture for you,” she said. “Our highest budget item… is payroll.”
The library’s annual budget is $6.6 million, of which $3.2 million is payroll. The furlough will save around $65,000 every two weeks, “so that’s a substantial amount of money to be kept in the budget for future needs,” Montgomery said.
Trustee Paul Huyck said between now and June 30, the library will save more than $100,000.
“The sixty-four thousand dollar question is when the library will be able to open and offer services again,” he said.
Future needs will include about $2 million in “absolutely essential” building repairs, including roof replacements and parking lots repairs, trustee Bill Largent said. He added the library had saved enough funds to complete the projects over the next 12-24 months.
Trustees also discussed whether furloughed employees should continue earning sick leave and paid time off; they would not under current policy. Ultimately, the board deadlocked on a motion to allow accrual.
However, trustees scheduled a special meeting on May 12, 6 p.m., and asked personnel and finance committees to research the financial impacts of changing the policy. If the board votes again, any change to the policy could be made retroactive.