Common Council meeting, 12/28/11. It was midpoint during the holiday season but most seats were taken in the council chambers, many by library supporters.
I can hear the tired groans of some readers, mutterings about "He's yammering again about the Plattsburgh Public Library." I'm also sick of the topic but for a different reason.
The recent budget crisis didn't have to happen. It didn't have to play out the way it did. And unless certain problems are addressed, a replay might be in the future.
To paraphrase Benjamin J. Grimm: It's yammering time.
One of the biggest problem areas in the budget train wreck: communication. Specifically, the lack of it.
Mayor Donald Kasprzak has stated that he warned the PPL Board of Trustees three years ago that there were problems with the library's budget. Some library employees tried to pass on the same concerns to the trustees but were reprimanded.
And what happened over those three years? The finite contingency fund was used to meet increasing costs of operation. And the Library Board voted for another raise for Library Director Stan Ransom.
In an essay that appeared in the Press-Republican back on February 18th of this year, "In My Opinion: Library director's raise explained," the Library Board answered criticism from the mayor, justifying its position. If it was aware of the budget crisis back then as others have said, the board should have been writing a piece about the need for no one to get a raise, even the director.
As part of the recent deal to save four PPL jobs, employees are going to take home smaller paychecks: they are losing two hours each week, have to pay more for health insurance, and won't see any raises for the next three years.
I've known Stan Ransom for a long time; he has always treated me well. It seems that this is a case of a good man with good intentions who unfortunately ended up with bad results.
But he shouldn't burden all the responsibility.
As I've heard a few times before, the Library Board has a fiduciary responsibility to the public (and library employees). Yes, the trustees are unpaid volunteers and probably get more blame than credit overall. But that doesn't change the fact that they didn't keep a close eye on the budget situation, especially after a warning from the mayor, and that all they could recommend was to lay off people instead of considering other alternatives.
At a Common Council meeting Mayor Kasprzak said that he was annoyed that people were complaining to him about the library budget crisis, the plan to ax four positions. Instead, he pointed out, people should take their complaints to the Library Board because it operates as an independent governing body.
It's true that the board does operate with independence but the mayor forgot to mention one important detail: the trustees are appointed by him and the Common Council.
And if the board seems to be falling back into its old bad pattern as the new year rolls on, maybe it's time for the mayor to work on unappointments and better appointments if that's within his power. If not, whoever's in charge in City Hall when the appointments run out should pick carefully.
Anyway, enough yammering about problems. Let's take at a look at some suggestions, positive steps that can be taken.
Communication has to be improved among all parties. Councilor Tim Carpenter's plan includes the creation of a grievance committee to handle complaints. If employees have concerns, the board should listen, especially if the employees are aware the train is going to jump the tracks again.
Press-Republican acting as Personnel Office.
The trustees have to be less aloof. No more employees finding out that their jobs might be on the chopping block by reading it in the newspaper instead of hearing it at work. Less secrecy. Does the executive session option have to be invoked so often when the board meets, keeping the public and the media in the dark? And to make the meetings more accessible to the more of the public (those who work 9 to 5) why not move the meeting time to later in the evening like 6 or 6:30? 4:30 PM is too early for most people.
Does the board have to be so big? It has thirteen members now with some wards with only one representative while others have four. A smaller board might be more effective, giving more equal representation.
More oversight by both the board and the public is needed. A good step in the right direction was the addition of an accountant to the board. Also, let's all be on the same page, no more two or three versions of the budget floating around, playing the "Who's got the real budget?" game.
It's time -- right now, not later -- to look at other ways to fund PPL.
For example, Reference/Local History Librarian Kelly Sexton has an idea: operate the library as a special district so that not only the city but surrounding townships can support it. This has been done with success in the Glens Falls - Queensbury area and in other communities.
A few thoughts to consider.
I don't want to see history repeat itself when we can learn from it and not be doomed.
Doomed to more yammering.
And not from just me but also library supporters who showed up at public meetings and vocally pressed for a better solution than canning four people. Great job, people.
And if I may repeat myself...
There are two kinds of people you should never eff with: librarians and library patrons.