Advocacy, Government, Libraries

Library Funding Series: Aftereffects of the funding crisis

This is the fourth post in my Library Funding Series, a series of posts about my experiences and lessons learned from serving as the marketing and communications director for a public library during the 2008 recession and its aftereffects. Read previous post. 

In my first three posts, I explained the funding impacts, public relations challenges, and lessons learned from my experiences in the spring of 2010. Now I will delve into the aftermath of those few fraught months, and how we began to recover.

As I mentioned in my second post, one of the conditions of our Sustainability Plan was the appointment of a Citizen Task Force. This impartial group would carefully examine  the Library’s operations and make recommendations. The Task Force met for about six months, and recommended many changes, including focused programming, increased use of volunteers, the creation of a Library Foundation, benchmark funding studies. They also recommended that Mecklenburg County increase our funding for fiscal year 2012.

Another condition of the plan was the formation of a Library-County committee to explore consolidating some Library departments with similar County departments.
Through these processes of examination, the Library and County improved communication and began to define their relationship. This defining of the relationship was a pivotal step.

We knew it was important, because one of the challenges we had faced during the turmoil of the budget cuts and proposed branch closures was the question, “Who is in charge of the Library?” The Library had a governing board, who was ostensibly in charge, but the County had an elected broad, and they controlled the purse strings. Because the roles were unclear, the public was confused about where to direct their frustration with the situation. Moreover, Library and County staff didn’t have the relationships in place to make that setup work effectively.

Before the crisis, the Library worked independently to manage the budget, deliver services, report on performance, manage capital projects and open/close branches. The County worked independently to provide funding and budget oversight, measure performance, approve capital funding and appoint board members. But beyond mandatory meetings, they didn’t check in with each other or share information beyond the minimum requirements.

After the Task Force report was released, we defined the roles and responsibilities of the Library and County. We defined that the Library was the managing partner, responsible for operations, services, and general administrative duties. The County was the funding partner, responsible for budget, funding and appointment of trustees. Together, the Library and County also had a list of shared responsibilities, including deciding the number of branches and expansion/contraction thereof, capital projects, material changes in service, significant changes in compensation/benefits, and branch closings. These shared responsibilities required the Library and County to work closely together and build even stronger relationships.

These roles were formalized in an interlocal agreement that ensured that these changes would be long-lasting, and that they would endure even if there were leadership of personnel changes.

Throughout this complex process, Library Marketing and Communications was at the table for every important decision. During the crisis, our leadership realized that it was critically important to control the narrative and anticipate how specific decisions might be perceived by the public. Marketing and Communications also became very involved in the Library-County relationship. including the reporting of results to the County.

We were also still very much in the public eye, so every decision was scrutinized. Even routine board meetings were regularly attended by the media. Now an active and vocal member of the leadership team, I would help create and review board agendas, scrutinize communications to the County, weigh in on operational decisions with my colleagues, and support internal communications.

Did it work perfectly? Of course not. But it provided a much more transparent, realistic, and sustainable operating environment to ensure we wouldn’t end up in another funding crisis. The community began to relax and enjoy their libraries again. Incremental funding increases, year after year, allowed us to expand hours in the remaining 20 branches and increase capacity to meet the community demand. And we also continued to faithfully implement the Task Force’s recommendations, including the launch of our Library Foundation in 2013.

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