Using reserve fund to pay for proposed renovation of Columbus Public Library raises concern

Concerned about possibly using the reserve fund for the proposed renovation of the Columbus Public Library, the Muscogee County Library Board's finance committee asked administrators Tuesday to trim the preliminary budget for next fiscal year.

Most of the seven committee members were absent from the meeting in the Columbus Public Library's third-floor conference room, but members Rick Covington and Frank Star agreed the request of $280,000 for the renovation's first phase would take too much from the projected $3,254,230 reserve.

The 8-year-old library was a $50.4 million project funded by a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The proposed renovation would cost about $1 million and be spread over three years. The need comes primarily from wear and tear of the carpeting and furniture, especially in the Aflac Children's Room, "where they've been loved well," said Claudya Muller, director of the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries.

The library system's preliminary budget of $8,519,264 for fiscal year 2013-14 is a 9.5 percent increase over this year's spending plan. The preliminary budget calls for $921,485 from the reserve.

"I think the question is what other expenses can be eradicated so we don't need that $900,000," Star said.

Muller asked whether cutting $300,000 to $400,000 would be sufficient.

"Do what you can," Covington said.

The full board will consider the preliminary budget during its Feb. 28 meeting at 1 p.m. in the library's Synovus-CB&T Meeting Room. The budget must be set by the May meeting, in time for the Muscogee County School Board's approval in June. The school board owns and operates the county's public libraries.

Lyn Anderson, the library system's chief financial officer, said the majority of the projected increase in expenses, other than the proposed renovation, comes from health insurance, new staff and pay adjustments.

Muller emphasized the only significant areas to cut in the budget are in staff and in materials (mostly books). But the materials budget is only 8 percent of the total budget and already is being suggested as a reduced line item from $800,000 to $700,000. And if the library staff is cut, the system's hours also would have to be cut even more than they were three years ago, she said.

"The difference between a library and a warehouse is the staff," Muller said.

"I know it's tough," Covington said. "It's just that we're on a downward projection."

If more revenue isn't generated, Anderson's projections show the reserve would dwindle to $71,131 by fiscal year 2016-17. The library board's policy requires a minimum of $500,000 in reserve, Muller said.

After the meeting, Covington and Star further explained their opposition.

"My reservation is spending from the reserve, not on the renovation versus anything else," Covington said. "The library has been fortunate that it has a reserve, and we have been living off that the last few years, but that comes to a screeching halt when it gets down to zero.

" (The reserve) has kept some of the budget constraints that we've had because of the tax digest and other things from being as horrific as they potentially could be. So all I was saying is that we need a plan before we spend that reserve. It's something we need to worry about now, not in a few years."

Covington acknowledged there isn't anything obvious in the budget to cut.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Covington said.

Star added, "I have a feeling they will come back with some reductions."

"This is predominantly a tax-supported institution," Star continued. "Eighty percent of our income is from state monies, and we are frugal and thoughtful and deliberate. We are not out there to spend money. We need to emphasize the services we provide to the public."

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