AADL Weighs Small Tax Hike in FY 2014

Surovell plans to vote against any tax increase, thinks library can maintain quality without it; also, board briefed on ice-skating rink proposal

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (April 15, 2013): Two main topics were discussed at the April AADL board meeting: The draft budget for fiscal 2013-14, and a proposal for an ice-skating rink on the city-owned Library Lane parking lot, adjacent to the downtown library on South Fifth Avenue.

Margaret Leary, Ed Surovell, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Ann Arbor District Library trustees Margaret Leary and Ed Surovell. (Photos by the writer.)

The $12.475 million proposed budget calls for levying the AADL’s tax at a rate of 1.575-mill – a small increase from the current 1.55-mill rate, but still below the amount that AADL is authorized to levy. [.pdf of draft 2013-14 budget]

Ken Nieman – AADL’s associate director of finance, HR and operations – told the board that the budget includes a 3% increase in the merit raise pool for full-time employees and an increase in hourly base rates for part-time workers. The administration wanted to make sure that the library’s lower-paying jobs start at more than $9 per hour. “It will help us attract people and hopefully also keep people as we compete against other businesses out there,” he said.

The board is expected to vote on the budget and set the millage rate on May 6, but several trustees made comments about the draft budget during the April 15 meeting. Ed Surovell argued strongly against even a small tax increase, and said he wouldn’t be voting for a budget that includes any increase to the millage. It’s estimated that the additional 0.025 mills would increase the amount of the library tax for homeowners by $2.50 per year, for a home that has a taxable value of $100,000. The increase is estimated to result in an additional $185,000 in tax revenues, compared to a 1.55-mill rate.

The April 15 meeting also included a presentation by Stewart Gordon and Alan Haber, who are advocating to put a temporary, artificial ice-skating rink at the northwest corner of the Library Lane parking lot. They asked the board to designate a liaison from the library, to facilitate communications as the project unfolds – they hope to construct and open it by Oct. 15. Several commissioners board members expressed skepticism about the proposal, stressing concerns over financing and security issues.

The board also heard from five people during public commentary. Topics included concerns over the hiring of Allerton-Hill Consulting, and thanks for support the library’s support of the ArborWiki and Old News projects.

FY 2013-14 Draft Budget

The board was briefed on a draft budget for fiscal 2013-14, which will lead up to a vote at its May 6 meeting. The fiscal year begins July 1. [.pdf of draft 2013-14 budget]

Ken Nieman – AADL’s associate director of finance, HR and operations – reviewed highlights of the budget. He described the process of developing the budget, starting with frontline staff input and followed with review by the board’s budget and finance committee, concluding with board approval.

A big part of developing the budget is estimating revenues, Nieman said, noting that 92% of the library’s revenues are collected from property taxes. The draft budget is based on an assumption of a 2% increase in taxable value, he explained. [Later in the week, Washtenaw County released its annual equalization report, which is used to calculate taxable value. Taxable value for properties that pay the AADL millage is estimated to increase 2.11%.]

Nieman also noted that the budget is based on a 1.575-mill tax – a small increase from the current 1.55-mill rate. [Although he did not mention this fact, the library is authorized to levy up to 1.92 mills. In recent years the board has set the millage rate at lower levels.]

At 1.575 mills, the tax would be expected to bring in $11.515 million in revenues during the fiscal year, assuming a projected 2% increase in the property tax base. Other projected major revenue sources include library fines and fees ($425,000), penal fines ($195,000), and interest income ($100,000). Total revenues for the 2013-14 budget are $12.475 million, compared to a projected $12.161 million in the current fiscal year.

Nieman also highlighted another line item on the revenue side – a $25,000 transfer from fund balance/restricted funds. The library has several restricted funds on its balance sheet, he noted, including a fund for the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled and the Westerman fund [set up by Scott and Marcy Westerman], among others. “This year, we’re looking at spending some of that money,” he said. [At the board's March 18, 2013 meeting, AADL director Josie Parker had specifically mentioned the intent to use money from the Westerman fund this year – which stands at about $43,000 – to help fund AADL’s summer game. The WLBPD account had a balance of $37,099 as of March 31, 2013. Other restricted funds are the Holtrey fund ($331,620), Keniston fund ($30,287), and Shafer fund ($10,466).]

On the expense side, the budget reflects a 3% increase in the merit raise pool for full-time employees and an increase in hourly base rates for part-time workers. The base rate for part-time workers – known as “casual” employees – hadn’t been raised since 2008, he said, and the administration wanted to make sure that the library’s lower-paying jobs started at more than $9 per hour. “It will help us attract people and hopefully also keep people as we compete against other businesses out there,” he said.

The library’s 10% contribution to the 403(b) employee health care plan hasn’t increased, Nieman reported. However, the library’s contribution to the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (MPSERS) will increase from 24.32% to 28%. Only 18 employees are enrolled in that pension plan. They are employees who worked for the library when it was still part of the Ann Arbor Public Schools system. Overall, total employee-related costs are budgeted to increase from $7.728 million in the current fiscal year to $7.995 million in fiscal 2013-14 – a 3.5% increase.

Other major expense line items include $1.85 million for materials, $440,000 for utilities, and $302,000 for repair and maintenance. Overall, there aren’t any huge increases in expenses, Nieman said.

A public hearing is scheduled for input on the budget at the board’s May 6 meeting.

FY 2013-14 Draft Budget: Board Discussion

Barbara Murphy, a member of the board’s budget and finance committee along with Nancy Kaplan and Jan Barney Newman, said the committee had talked at length about the draft budget, going through it line-by-line compared to last year. She wanted to make sure other board members were aware that it had been reviewed in much more detail, and that Nieman had simply provided the highlights. “We didn’t see any places where major changes were being made or where it wasn’t cut pretty much to the bone,” Murphy said. She characterized it as a very conservative budget.

Ed Surovell began his comments by asking several clarification questions. Responding to his queries, Nieman said the increased millage rate of 1.575 mills would add about $185,000 in revenues compared to a rate of 1.55 mills, assuming the tax base increases 2%. The merit pool – when fully burdened with FICA and pension liabilities – would be about $165,000, factoring in a 3% increase.

Surovell noted that those figures – the revenue increase and merit pool – were roughly equivalent. He said he didn’t have any desire to touch the merit pool.

Surovell then pressed for details about the 2% projected increase in taxable value. Nieman reported that it’s a projection made by the county, and he didn’t yet know additional details. It’s somewhat difficult to estimate, he added, because the AADL collects taxes from properties in the city of Ann Arbor as well as portions of seven surrounding townships – Pittsfield, Scio, Ann Arbor, Lodi, Webster, Salem and Superior. [The AADL's boundary mirrors that of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, with the exception of Northfield Township, which is partly within the AAPS district but has its own library system.]

Surovell noted another complicating factor: The unknown impact of appeals on tax assessments. Nieman indicated that in the last two years, that impact has been “huge.” Parker also reported that state revenues to the library have decreased.

Nieman said he hoped that the draft budget’s projected 2% tax revenue increase is conservative. If that projection is off, “we’ll have to make some adjustments – just like any year,” he said.

Surovell then stated his position: “I’m going to vote no. I don’t think there should be a tax increase – I feel very strongly about that.” Explaining his broader philosophical principle, Surovell said he’s spent his entire professional career dealing with the cost of living in this jurisdiction. [Surovell founded and led Edward Surovell Realtors, which merged with Howard Hanna Real Estate last year.] “I’ve dealt with far too many people for whom a quarter of a mill is either a straw on the camel’s back, or a meal, or a quality meal, or nutrition in general, or transportation, or some other small element of their already small budget,” he said. [A quarter-mill is 0.25. The proposed increase is less than that – at 0.025 mill.]

When Murphy asked how much the tax increase would be on a $100,000 house, Surovell replied: “I don’t care.” He said he cared about how much it meant coming out of someone’s pocket.

Nieman clarified that the 0.025-mill increase on a property with an assessed value of $100,000 – and a market value of $200,000 – would be $2.50 per year.

Surovell said he’d still vote no. “I don’t believe we should be raising our taxes.” It’s possible to figure out how to be a responsible library, provide programming, and not raise taxes, he argued. The AADL is a wonderful library with a “spectacular record disciplined expenditures and disciplined taxation,” Surovell said. “I don’t think we should change that now, even for $2.50.” He told a story about being in a store and watched an elderly woman trying to trade in a small can of peas for something else she wanted. “It told me how rich I was and how not-rich she was,” he said.

People living in Ann Arbor spend an enormous amount to support efforts like the nonprofit Food Gatherers, Surovell noted, adding that he didn’t want to be part of asking for more from residents.

Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

This drawing of a cityscape by Zoe Zhang, on display in the Ann Arbor District Library’s multi-purpose room, is probably not a commentary on density in downtown Ann Arbor. Zhang is a first-grader at Northside Elementary.

He also believes that the library is disciplined enough to find ways to balance its budget without the increase. He added that he’d do nothing to damage the library’s operations, but he thought the staff could manage it. Surovell confirmed with Nieman that the library typically ends the year with a modest surplus. This year, Nieman reported that there will likely be a surplus of about $60,000.

Margaret Leary asked Nancy Kaplan, as chair of the budget and finance committee, to talk about the rationale for the proposed increase. Going into the budget development, Leary noted, the board had been thinking about not increasing the millage, unless a major project emerged. She wondered what had changed.

Kaplan said the first consideration had been to show appreciation for the staff, to retain current employees as well as attract future workers. The committee “greatly used the advice of Ken,” Kaplan said. Committee members had felt that the proposed tax increase – if viewed as spread out over a year – was a minimal amount. She also cited the state’s repeal of the personal property tax. Given uncertainties on the revenue side, she indicated that the committee didn’t want to dip into a non-recurring source of funding to cover expenses. “We felt that this was a very good compromise to be able to do all that we wanted to do, and to be secure in funding.”

Leary wondered whether it would be possible to keep the current millage rate, then use the library’s fund balance if a shortfall developed. [As of March 31, the AADL's fund balance was $8.214 million.] Kaplan replied that her understanding is that the fund balance should not be used for recurring costs. She again stressed that the committee had made the decision on Nieman’s advice.

Newman characterized it as a difficult decision, and said the committee had talked about it a long time. Committee members didn’t agree on all the reasons, she added, but did agree that it was important to raise the base pay of AADL’s lowest-paid employees. The committee felt that action warranted the millage increase.

Leary clarified with staff that the base rate for part-time employees hasn’t been raised since 2008. Nieman reported that the current base is $8.82 per hour. That amount would increase to $9.12. Last year, part-time staff received incremental raises, but before that no raises had been given in recent years.

Murphy said she wanted to respond to Surovell’s comments about having a responsible budget. Contrary to what he thinks, she didn’t think an increase of 0.025 mills is irresponsible. The library has a responsibility not only to taxpayers, but also to AADL’s employees and to the downtown building and its maintenance, and to the library’s collection. “I think that $2.50 a year is a small price to pay” to maintain the library’s quality, she concluded.

Leary pointed out that by increasing the base pay, the library is also retaining and attracting the best staff, which in turn is a service to AADL’s patrons. She said she was torn about this decision. She could see the rationale for the millage increase very clearly, and thinks the reasons are good. The library hasn’t raised its millage for a long time.

The millage was decreased to 1.55 mills after the completion of the new Traverwood branch, Leary noted, and has remained at that level even through the declining economy. On the other hand, she felt that the board had made a commitment to keep the millage at its current rate until they had a specific project that it would be used for. However, it’s such a tiny increase, she said, so on balance she thought she could vote for it.

Board president Prue Rosenthal wrapped up the discussion by noting that the board will hold a public hearing on May 6 to get input on the budget before taking a vote at the same meeting.

Outcome: This was not a voting item.

Monthly Financials

Ken Nieman – AADL’s associate director of finance, HR and operations – also gave a brief report on the March 2013 financials. [.pdf of March 2013 financial statements]

As of March 31, 2013 the library had received 98.1% of its budgeted tax revenues for the year, or $10.99 million. The library’s unrestricted cash balance was $10.73 million as of March, with a fund balance of $8.214 million.

Three line items are currently over budget: utilities, communications, and software. The line items for utilities and communications will likely be close to the budgeted amounts for the year, Nieman said, while software expenses are expected to be slightly under budget.

As is his habit, Nieman remarked that there was nothing out of the ordinary in March. The board had no questions on the report.

Outcome: This was not a voting item.

Ice-Skating Rink

Both Stewart Gordon and Alan Haber have spoken during public commentary at previous AADL board meetings, most recently on March 18, 2013. At that meeting, Gordon told trustees that he hoped the project that he and others were advocating – putting an artificial ice-skating rink on the Library Lane site – would be put on an upcoming agenda for discussion.

The ice-skating rink proposal was subsequently added to the board’s April 15 agenda. Gordon and Haber gave a brief presentation, followed by questions from trustees.

Stewart Gordon, Alan Haber, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

From left: Stewart Gordon and Alan Haber, who are advocating for a temporary artificial ice-skating rink atop a portion of the Library Lane parking structure.

The proposal calls for building an artificial ice-skating rink atop a portion of the city-owned Library Lane underground parking structure. The property is adjacent to the downtown library building at 343 S. Fifth Ave. The temporary rink would be a 32-foot by 72-foot area on the northwest corner of the Library Lane lot, costing an estimated $50,000. Rink organizers seek $25,000 in matching funds from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, plus an “in-kind” contribution of 15 surface parking spaces. The rink would cover those spaces, which would otherwise generate parking revenue. [.pdf of rink proposal]

Gordon described it as a synergistic activity with the library – he imagined families would come to the library to check out books, then go skate, or vice versa. Open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., it would be a highly programmed site with staff and volunteers on hand, he said, as well as an ice-sharpening service, food cart, chess tables and other activities. The space could be used for other events or gatherings. He noted that the artificial ice would be a type of plastic that requires very little maintenance.

Gordon said the organizers didn’t see the library as supporting the project financially, but he hoped the library could be a partner in “the way that this rolls out.” Specifically, he asked that the board designate someone within the organization to be a regular liaison with organizers. He also hoped that the library could be involved in the assessment part of the project, to see if there’s demand for the rink and if not, whether it should be moved to another location. It’s an experimental process, he said.

Haber noted that the city has discussed using the southwest corner, nearest to the library, as a public plaza. He hopes the city council will re-designate the entire western part of the Library Lane site for public use. One of those uses would be the skating rink. As the city decides how the entire top of Library Lane will be used, the rink could be an experimental use to see how it works out, Haber said. This project would be a relatively inexpensive way to see if this kind of public use would draw people downtown.

It was important to establish a line of communication with the library, Haber said, and to hear the board’s concerns. People like the idea, he added, though there are a lot of questions. He indicated that organizers would be meeting with the city attorney’s office, as well as neighbors like the library, to get their input.

Gordon highlighted the proposed timeline, which he said gives organizers enough time to talk with stakeholders and to fundraise. The target is to open the rink on Oct. 15, 2013.

Ice-Skating Rink: Board Discussion – Urban Planning

Prue Rosenthal thanked Gordon and Haber for their work. She asked about the affiliation between this project and the Library Green Conservancy, which is advocating to put a park on top of the Library Lane structure. Haber replied that he’s been part of the Library Green group since “before it became a group.” But this project isn’t part of the Library Green’s effort, he added. That group is concentrating on trying to get most or all of the Library Green site designated for public use. Within that, he said he’s urging the city to see the site as a civic commons, a place that can become a cultural center for peace and non-violence, a central place “that’s healing and inclusive.” However, the ice-skating rink is a separate project, he said.

Margaret Leary wondered how rink organizers came up with the idea: What was the process and how did they determine that this was a good use for the site? There’s been a huge amount of discussion about this site over the next five years or so, she noted, including the Calthorpe study and the more recent Connecting William Street project. Did the idea come from any of that work? She also asked if the ice-skating rink is consistent with the city’s parks and recreation long-term plan, and whether organizers have spoken to urban planners about this project.

Gordon replied that the rink organizers have been very involved in what’s happening with the city’s parks and recreation unit, and is aware of what the city is planning – “to the extent that they know what they intend to do,” he noted. He pointed out that a subcommittee of the park advisory commission is working on recommendations for downtown parks. Gordon emphasized that the rink is experimental, and could be moved.

The city’s parks staff is not interested in running the rink, Gordon said, because they don’t have the resources or the interest in doing that. In that case, Leary asked, who would staff the rink? Gordon replied that a nonprofit is being formed, which would hire staff.

Leary then asked if the group had spoken to urban planners in Ann Arbor, and if so, what did they say? Specifically, she mentioned Doug Kelbaugh, a professor at the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager. Gordon said rink organizers have spoken to urban planners in other states and, closer to home, in Dexter – but not in Ann Arbor. Gordon also had talked to a representative of a private rink operated at the Hancock Center in Chicago. He indicated that he’d be happy to talk to local urban planners, too.

Josie Parker, AADL’s director, asked if rinks in these other locations used synthetic ice. The one in Dexter is not synthetic, Gordon replied, but the one at the Hancock Center is. He said he talked to the manager there, who has said the rink has held up well. In response to another query from Parker, Gordon reported that the Hancock Center rink charges $6 per person for each half hour. He said that no charge is planned for the Library Lane rink.

Ice-Skating Rink: Board Discussion – Finances

Ed Surovell pointed out that any use on the Library Lane site is a zero-sum game, and that there’s a “vastness of non-revenue-producing space” between Division and Fourth Avenue. He wondered how to justify using the space for parks or any other non-revenue-producing use when the city is struggling with its budget, and when the Library Lane parking structure was an “extraordinarily expensive” city investment. The city’s parks and recreation department doesn’t have the money to do this project, he noted. “Is this not a private operation that takes away money that ought to be managed and controlled by the city – by all of the people in Ann Arbor, and not just a very small group?”

Parks are deteriorating and in desperate need of money, Surovell continued. Why put the rink at this location, he asked, rather than take the revenue that might come from a taxable building on the site?

Ann Arbor District Library, Library Lane, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

A view from the fourth floor of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown building at 343 S. Fifth Ave., looking northwest. The northwest corner of the city-owned Library Lane underground parking structure, seen in this photo, is the site for a proposed ice-skating rink.

Haber responded by saying that Surovell had raised two issues. One was whether it’s beneficial to have non-revenue-producing civic activities in a central place, that contribute to the ambiance, energy and goodwill of the downtown. That’s a value that’s not monetarily measured, Haber said, but “all the data” show that public space downtown has beneficial economic impact for the surrounding area. He noted that the project isn’t seeking money from the city’s parks unit. Rather, organizers are trying to fund the rink through private donations, he said. It’s an experiment – and if it works, then it’s a benefit to the city, he said. Haber believed the project would be self-sufficient, following an initial capital investment.

Surovell asked why the DDA is being asked for funding, if organizers believe the project can be self-supporting. Haber replied that the DDA funding would be used for the initial capital investment. The request to the DDA is for about half of the estimated $50,000 cost.

Surovell wondered why organizers couldn’t raise the entire amount through private donations. Both Haber and Gordon indicated that they could raise the full amount, but Haber said there’s a benefit to a public/private partnership. Surovell replied that there’s significant commercial potential on the site, in terms of tax revenues for the city if a private development is built there. The DDA built and financed the parking structure “rather involuntarily,” Surovell said, and any lost revenue from the site becomes a further contribution to the city.

Leary asked if the DDA would be reimbursed for revenues that would be lost when parking spaces are taken out of commission on the area where a rink would be located. Gordon said that the city council has a resolution to repurpose those spaces for public use. Has such a resolution been passed? Leary asked. “No, but it will be,” Gordon replied, adding. “It may be.” Surovell indicated skepticism about that.

Leary wanted to know how much revenue those lost spaces would take away from the city. Haber noted that there are two ways of looking at it. The DDA estimates that revenues are $20 per day per parking space. On the other hand, he said, that site has never been seen as a permanent parking area. “It’s parking only by default, because the building that was intended to be built there wasn’t built,” he said. [The DDA constructed the underground structure with a foundation that would support a large building. The city issued a request for proposals (RFP) for developing the site, but ultimately abandoned that effort in 2011.]

Haber said there will eventually be some other use on that site: But what happens in the interim? In the short run, some revenues will be taken away, he acknowledged. But those parking revenues weren’t seen as long-term anyway.

Ice-Skating Rink: Board Discussion – Liability

Jan Barney Newman wondered who would own the rink – the nonprofit that Haber and Gordon are forming? Haber replied that these details need to be worked out with the city attorney. He thought it would be the nonprofit, although the materials might eventually be transferred to the city, he said.

Newman also asked about liability insurance. Gordon described three models. In Dexter, the liability for the downtown skating rink is assumed by the village’s omnibus insurance policy, he said. There is also a model for liability insurance that would be specific to the rink, or there could be full liability insurance for the site. “That’s not for us to decide – that’s for the city attorney to decide,” he said.

Haber noted that the new skatepark that’s being built at Veterans Memorial Park is a model for the skating rink. There, you’ll skate at your own risk, he said, but the skatepark will be covered by the city’s liability insurance. That’s the approach he’s suggesting for the ice-skating rink, too.

Gordon added that the skatepark will simply have a sign stating that skateboarders are using the skatepark at their own risk. He said the ice-skating rink would have more than that. There will be staff that will ask skaters to sign a waiver, he said.

Rebecca Head noted that ultimately, the liability does fall to the owner of the property, even if people sign waivers. She wondered what kind of conversations Haber and Gordon have had with the city attorney and planning staff about liability issues. She pointed to the “deep pockets” of government entities, and indicated that because this is a litigious society, “it often falls back to the governmental entity.”

Haber reported that a conversation hadn’t yet happened with the city attorney. [A meeting was scheduled later in the week.] He reported that several councilmembers are interested in the project, with Jane Lumm taking the lead. He noted that the city attorney, Stephen Postema, “doesn’t deal with mere citizens,” so the skating rink organizers have been communicating with Postema through Lumm. The liability issue is one question that’s been posed, he said.

Surovell asked Haber whether it’s fair to say that the rink organizers have a long way to go on this project. Haber said he didn’t think that was true. Surovell pointed out that organizers haven’t gotten the city council or DDA to do anything. Lumm is just one councilperson, and there are a lot of pieces that need to happen at the beginning of a project, not the end, Surovell said.

Gordon replied that the only thing organizers are asking from the library is to identify a liaison for this project. “We’re not asking you to solve our financial problems or our legal problems,” he said.

Rosenthal asked what a liaison would do. Gordon replied that a liaison would be a point person for information, so that organizers could disseminate information quickly to the board. Also, if the library has concerns, a liaison can communicate those to rink organizers.

Ice-Skating Rink: Board Discussion – Security

Nancy Kaplan wanted to know how vandalism and other “misbehavior” would be handled. There needs to be a way to assure that the area is peaceful and inclusive. Haber said there would be a standard code of conduct, and staff would be trained. Organizers have a relationship with the University of Michigan School of Social Work, he said, and he’s interested in developing a field placement option in the downtown area for students at the school.

Rosenthal said the board is focused on the library, and its desire is to make sure the library is a safe space where people can access materials. Head added that the library is open and welcoming to everyone, including vulnerable populations like the elderly, people with small children, and people who use the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled. “Those folks are sometimes harassed, frankly, by people who see the library as a way station during the day,” she said. The library doesn’t begrudge anyone using it, she added, but when there are fights or other altercations, it makes the library not a welcoming place.

Head said the board is very conscious of Liberty Plaza. [The reference was to problems that the city has had with crime at that public plaza, located at the southwest corner of Liberty and Division, about a block away from the library.] The Library Lane site is another public space, she noted, and the library needs assurance from the city that there is adequate security. “If you can gain that, that will go a long way,” she said. “And I really mean adequate security.” It’s important that all library patrons have access to a safe place at the library, she added, “and I say that as a public health official who’s dealt with issues like this for a long, long time.”

When Haber replied that the rink would have at least one person on the site to have their eyes on potential problems, Head said “we need the city to commit to security.”

Outcome: This was not a voting item.

Director’s Report

Josie Parker highlighted the continued support by other libraries countywide to help promote the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, which AADL manages. It’s difficult to state a cause-effect relationship, but since other libraries have started putting stickers on their large-print books to promote the WLBPD, there’s been an uptick in people asking to register for WLBPD services, she said. Parker characterized it as a good indication of the type of collaboration that’s always gone on among libraries in this county.

Parker also noted that 2013 is the 21st year of the It’s All Write! short story competition. The contest has three categories: middle school grades 6-8, high school grades 9-10, and high school grades 11-12. There are 335 entries this year. The contest always has international entries, she noted – this year, there’s an entry from Dubai.

High school students from Huron, Skyline, Pioneer, Gabriel Richard and Rudolf Steiner are participating. Every middle school in the Ann Arbor Public Schools district is represented this year, as well as Honey Creek, Greenhills, South Arbor Charter Academy, Mill Creek, and Rudolf Steiner. A middle school student who is home-schooled has also entered the contest.

The stories that win are published and become part of the AADL collection. Prizes are funded by the Friends of the AADL. The awards ceremony is May 11, with A. S. King as the guest speaker.

Parker noted that because of this contest’s success, this year a new short story contest has been added for grades 3-5. Submissions are being accepted through May 6, with the writers invited to an awards ceremony in early June featuring Shutta Crum, a local author and former AADL librarian.

Other information was provided in the board packet, as part of Parker’s written report. [.pdf of director's report]

Committee Reports

The board has six committees: communications, budget and finance, facilities, policy, director’s evaluation and executive. Two of those – communications and facilities – were created as special committees at the board’s Jan. 21, 2013 meeting. Here are highlights from the committee reports made during the April 15 meeting.

Committee Reports: Budget and Finance, Communications.

Nancy Kaplan reported that the budget and finance committee reviewed the draft budget with staff earlier this month, in preparation for presention to the board. The communications committee, which she chairs, had not met since the March board meeting.

Committee Reports: Director’s Evaluation

Jan Barney Newman said the director’s evaluation committee met and reviewed Josie Parker’s self-evaluation. The committee agreed that they “heartily approve of our director,” she said. A full report will be presented at the May 6 meeting.

The board had met in closed session earlier at the April 15 meeting to discuss the director’s evaluation. As Parker had pointed out during the board’s March 18, 2013 meeting, in order for the review to take place during a closed session, the person being reviewed must request it. She had made that request. At the end of the April 15 meeting, the board again voted to hold a closed session on May 6 for the same purpose.

Committee Reports: Facilities

Margaret Leary, chair of the facilities committee, told the board that committee members had met on April 10. They discussed the need to improve a telecommunications line to the Pittsfield branch. Eli Neiburger, AADL’s associate director of IT and production, made a proposal to the committee, which it approved. That proposal will be brought forward at the May 6 board meeting, Leary said.

Also coming to the full board in May will be a resolution to renew the library’s space-use agreement with the nonprofit Friends of the Ann Arbor District Library, which operates a used bookstore in the lower level of AADL’s downtown branch at 343 S. Fifth Ave. Proceeds of the store – about $90,000 annually – are given to the library. [.pdf of current FAADL space-use agreement]

Leary reported that the facilities committee has reviewed the agreement, and doesn’t see any reason to change it.

Committee Reports: Executive

Prue Rosenthal reported the executive committee met and discussed “issues at hand.” She did not elaborate.

Public Commentary

Five people spoke during public commentary at the meeting.

John Woodford told the board that he’s lived in Ann Arbor 35 years, and shared some of the same concerns that have previously been voiced by the Protect Our Libraries political action committee. He asked why the board refuses to videotape its meetings, given that the Michigan Open Meetings Act allows for it. He also asked why the library is hiring Allerton-Hill Consulting, which he said is known for its political consulting. In addition to the amount of the contract, he wondered if there are other provisions for travel expenses. [At its March 18, 2013 meeting, Nancy Kaplan – chair of the board's communications committee – reported that $28,000 has been budgeted for this consulting work. Contracts for purchases over that amount must be authorized by the board.]

Woodford said that the Friends of the AADL had contributed $25,000 last year to the library’s failed bond campaign. Does it make sense for the library to spend more money on what looks like another bond campaign? he asked. He said he was aware that a citizens advisory committee has been recommended to the board. “So why are you hiring an expensive consulting firm,” he said, rather than form a citizens advisory committee, especially given that people have already volunteered to serve. Public libraries should stand for freedom of inquiry, expression and information, “so I wonder why any library meetings should be held in secret,” Woodford said. [He likely was referring to the board's committee meetings, which are not open to the public. Committees consist of three board members each, and because that does not constitute a quorum of the board, the meetings are not required to be held in public.]

Woodford concluded by saying that the new campaign “smells mighty fishy to this citizen, and I don’t think a PR outfit can really deodorize it.” The wisest course, he said, would be to have the people who want a 400-seat auditorium organize a campaign for that auditorium, “and not leech off the public library.” He told the board that he’d leave his email address with the expectation that he’d get answers to these questions.

Ed Vielmetti thanked the board and staff for projects that he’s been a part of and had made use of. Specifically, he cited the Old News project, which includes digitization of the former Ann Arbor News collection. He thanked the board for their support in negotiating that deal, and thanked the reference staff for helping him search for various information and get it into circulation.

Ed Vielmetti, Jan Barney Newman, Ann Arbor District Library, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

AADL board member Jan Barney Newman talks with Ed Vielmetti, left, who spoke during public commentary at the board’s April 15 meeting.

He also reported that he’s been working on the ArborWiki project for several years. It was started in 2005 by Matt Hampel, who was a Community High School student at the time. When Hampel graduated, the school system said he’d need to find a new home for the local online encyclopedia, and the library became the site’s host. Vielmetti described the site as a collection of local information. It includes historical information, but also items like the “birthday deals” page and volunteer opportunities for youth and teens. Staff of the library, including Eli Neiburger, have been helpful in making sure the site grows and prospers, Vielmetti said.

Finally, he thanked the administration, especially AADL director Josie Parker, for open access to the library’s suggestion box. If you fill out the “Contact Us” form on the AADL website, you’ll get a prompt response and the answer will be published online for all to see, he said. Vielmetti also recommended that people look at that site “to see what people are experiencing with their library.”

Donald Harrison, an independent filmmaker and former executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, noted that last year he had become very involved in the campaign for a bond to build a new downtown library, which voters rejected. This is the third AADL board meeting that he’s attended, he said, and he wanted to acknowledge that the most important thing to come out of that campaign was the education and engagement that happened about the value of the library system. He appreciated being involved in that. Whether someone was for or against the bond, people universally talked about how great the library staff is. Working on the campaign with the AADL board was positive, Harrison said, and it made him want to stay involved.

Although not a lot of people attend the AADL board meetings, he said he thought he represented a lot of people in the community who saw the board’s proposal for a new building as a solid plan. He and others understand that there are a lot of challenges and costly decisions that need to be made. He’s been trying to use the downtown library more, and he feels it could be more of a place where filmmakers, high school students, retired people and others have the chance to interact. He didn’t think the existing building was really set up to do that, and he’d like to find a way to encourage more collaboration and creativity. “I think there is an opportunity cost by not having a really great downtown library,” Harrison concluded. He thanked the board for their public service. “Let’s keep going forward and build a better downtown library.”

At the end of the meeting, Lyn Davidge and Doug Jewett both addressed concerns related to the ability to hear proceedings. Davidge thanked the board members who remembered to speak into their microphones, but said it was still difficult to hear some of the discussion. She wondered if it would be possible to turn up the master volume on all microphones, joking that some people in the room have “aging ears.”

Jewett spoke about the awkward configuration of the podium and microphone that’s set up for people to give presentations or speak during public commentary. It forces some taller speakers to bend over like a pretzel, he noted. Jewett said board members probably don’t want to hear what’s being said, but he urged them to make it easier for people to address the group. AADL board president Prue Rosenthal responded, saying that the board did want to hear everything that was said by the public.

Present: Rebecca Head, Nancy Kaplan, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Prue Rosenthal, Ed Surovell. Also AADL director Josie Parker.

Next meeting: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 7 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [Check Chronicle event listing to confirm date]

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  1. By Doug Jewett
    April 20, 2013 at 6:35 am | permalink

    I fully agree with Ed Surovell’s observations, and thank him for speaking so poignantly. The economy made a huge adjustment in 2008. A lot of good people lost (or never got) good jobs. Many will not come back fully into whatever work force emerges from this stubbornly “jobless recovery”. Many older people hang on in their homes, having withdrawn or retired too early. They are forced to spend too deeply into their remaining equity. Many more of us will face the same situation over time, as may well many of our children.

  2. April 20, 2013 at 8:49 am | permalink

    I have a hard time understanding Surovell’s position. Why is it ok to raise the tax .5 mills for a new building, but not ok to raise it .025 mills to give staff a 3% pay raise?

    I’m also surprised there wasn’t a big increase in the maintenance budget. I had the impression the downtown library building was falling down and required huge amounts of maintenance. Has the condition of the building improved? Is it not as bad as we thought?

  3. April 20, 2013 at 2:46 pm | permalink

    One typo: In the fifth paragraph of the story, fifth line, “commissioners” should be “board members” or “trustees”.

    As to Surovell, he hasn’t changed since I was on the board from 2000-2008. He never valued the lower-level staff, and was consistently anti-union.

  4. April 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm | permalink

    Re: “commissioners” Roger that.

  5. April 20, 2013 at 3:08 pm | permalink

    The story highlights the dichotomy in the way many of us feel about our library. We love the library, its services, the staff, and their leadership and thoughtfulness in archiving all kinds of local history and reporting (the Old News is great). Warm fuzzies all over.

    But wait – we hate the talk of pushing the community to support a tear-down and new building. (The “messaging” grates, too.) I also resent the promotion of the hotel and conference center idea in the past by some board members, and their resistance to any public open space next to the library.

    Personally, I’d love to see the AADL take its full millage, and fix up the library AND pay the excellent staff their worth.

  6. By Lyn Davidge
    April 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm | permalink

    @2 – I too found Mr. Surovell’s position curious, given that the Board unanimously asked voters to tax themselves much more for a new building last Fall. Supporters of the bond proposal were fond of saying that the cost would be only “50 bucks a year”, as though that were highly affordable for everyone.

    As a former AADL employee, I know that at least some employee groups have gone without raises for varying lengths of time in the years since the library separated from the schools. Many of these were the same dedicated people who are the public face of AADL. They cheerfully staff the front line operations and perform myriad essential tasks behind the scenes, thus keeping the library operating smoothly day in and day out. They work under sometimes trying and inflexible circumstances without, in my opinion, appropriate recognition or appreciation from the Administration and the Board. I will happily pay a slightly increased library tax to assure the modest raises mentioned.

  7. April 20, 2013 at 5:30 pm | permalink

    > At 1.575 mills, the tax would be expected to bring in $11.515 million in revenues during the fiscal year, assuming a projected 2% increase in the property tax base.

    There was another story that the projected increase in the property tax base for the library district will be 2.11%. My math isn’t good enough to know what that does to the total revenues with and without the proposed millage change.

  8. By Mary Morgan
    April 20, 2013 at 6:31 pm | permalink

    Re. “There was another story that the projected increase in the property tax base for the library district will be 2.11%.”

    That fact was included in this article too:

    A big part of developing the budget is estimating revenues, Nieman said, noting that 92% of the library’s revenues are collected from property taxes. The draft budget is based on an assumption of a 2% increase in taxable value, he explained. [Later in the week, Washtenaw County released its annual equalization report, which is used to calculate taxable value. Taxable value for properties that pay the AADL millage is estimated to increase 2.11%.]

    After the equalization report was released on Wednesday, I emailed Ken Nieman and Josie Parker to ask how the difference between 2% and 2.11% will affect the budget revenue estimates. Parker responded that until the board’s budget & finance committee meets on April 26, “it is not known whether or not the proposed budget will be changed.”

    The draft budget, with any revisions recommended by the budget & finance committee, will be posted on the AADL board’s website on Sunday, April 28.

  9. By Libby Hunter
    April 21, 2013 at 1:14 pm | permalink

    Thank you for this excellent report. Two statements really stand out -

    1. “Let’s keep going forward and build a better downtown library.” (Donald Harrison, Public Commentary)

    2. Prue Rosenthal reported the executive committee met and discussed “issues at hand.” She did not elaborate. (Committee Reports: Executive)

    Let’s attend board meetings to see what Director Josie Parker and President Rosenthal, etc. are up to!

  10. By Herb
    April 23, 2013 at 7:42 am | permalink

    I would guess that Mr. Surovell wants the convention center, masquerading as new library, and is not much interested in the current library operation.

  11. By Judy Bonnell-Wenzel
    April 25, 2013 at 10:19 am | permalink

    I would love to see a skating rink and park on the Library Lane Lot. I assume it would be closer to the Earthen Jar and not on the side nearer the Library. The Public Transportation is great from where I live, off Ellsworth. I can get downtown in 20 minutes from my place 5 miles south of downtown.
    I also love the library, but recently found the computers and printer downtown were not as well kept up as the ones at my branch, off Eisenhower.

  12. By Mary Morgan
    April 26, 2013 at 9:38 am | permalink

    At the April 15 meeting, John Woodford spoke during public commentary (as reported above) and posed a series of questions to the board. He asked that the library email him a response, which he received on April 22 from AADL administrative assistant Karen Wilson. Woodford shared the response with The Chronicle:

    Mr. Woodford,

    Thank you for taking the time to attend the April 15th AADL Board meeting, and for exercising your right to speak to elected officials. Below we have answered the questions that you submitted.

    1. Given that the OMA specifically allows for the videotaping of open meetings, why is the Library continuing to refuse to televise the program for public meetings by CTN?

    On May 16, 2011, the AADL Board voted in open session against televising AADL Board meetings.

    2. Why did you hire a public relations consulting firm, Allerton Hill, known for its political consulting?

    In the AADL strategic plan adopted in 2010 is an objective to audit the communications structure and practices of AADL and to develop a communications plan. Allerton Hill is known for its emphasis on data collection for making strategic decisions, and that is in keeping with AADL’s practices. The communications plan that will be developed from this contract will extend to all communications, to and from AADL, and will encompass all aspects of the library’s services and programs as it works to achieve its mission.

    3. In addition to the $28,000.00 PR contract with Allerton Hill, if that is an accurate sum, are there provisions in it for travel expenses?

    Yes, Allerton Hill pays for all travel expenses.

    4. Does it make sense for you (AADL) to spend $28,000.00 public dollars on what looks like another bond campaign?

    The contract with Allerton Hill is to audit the communications of the AADL and to work with AADL to develop a comprehensive communications plan. The AADL Board is not able to control how any one individual might interpret an action that it takes; it can only state its purpose and intent.

    5. We are aware that a citizen’s library committee was recommended to the Board, so why are you hiring an expensive consulting firm, Allerton Hill, rather than forming a citizen’s advisory committee?

    One is not related to the other from the AADL Board’s point of view.

    6. The public library should stand for freedom of inquiry, expression and information. So, I wonder why any library meetings should be held in secret?

    Library meetings are posted as required by law and conducted according to the law. No library meetings are held in secret. Committee meetings are not posted, nor are they required to be. Committee meetings are all reported on in the public monthly AADL Board meetings by committee chairpersons.

    We thank you for your interest in the Ann Arbor District Library.


    Karen Wilson

    Karen L. Wilson

    Administrative Assistant
    Ann Arbor District Library

  13. By Libby Hunter
    April 26, 2013 at 10:05 am | permalink

    This is not a “report” -

    Committee Reports: Executive

    Prue Rosenthal reported the executive committee met and discussed “issues at hand.” She did not elaborate.

    (see #6 above)

  14. By Alan Goldsmith
    April 26, 2013 at 10:16 am | permalink

    “1. Given that the OMA specifically allows for the videotaping of open meetings, why is the Library continuing to refuse to televise the program for public meetings by CTN?

    On May 16, 2011, the AADL Board voted in open session against televising AADL Board meetings.”

    Apparently we might want to define the meaning of the word WHY? Someone doesn’t quite understand the complete meaning of the word.

  15. By Sam S.
    April 26, 2013 at 1:21 pm | permalink

    If you have watched the library at all over the past two years, you know that pretending they don’t know what you mean is the unspoken policy to avoid answering all uncomfortable questions. (See #6 from the same post). At the least this has become open disdain for the patrons and citizens. One hopes it is not a desperate attempt to cover up some deeper rot that has been hidden under the surface for too long.

  16. April 27, 2013 at 6:42 pm | permalink

    Regarding the ADDL’s board vote not to videotape meetings. Of course, the OMA allows anyone to videotape – and even broadcast live – but doesn’t require the public body to videotape its own proceedings or to archive the records. [I won't indulge in a tangent on how useful it would be to amend the city ordinance on cable licensing fees and direct a collaboration between AADL and CTN with respect to the overlap in community access and archiving mission. The ball is more in the city council's court than the library's, I think.]

    It’s been pointed out in other threads that two other public bodies have in the last few years begun videotaping meetings of their governing bodies – the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

    In the case of the AATA, that did not happen magically, where someone proposed it and the AATA board said: “Great idea, let’s do it!” Based on some 2007 AATA minutes predating the existence of The Chronicle, it appears there was a push from the community around that time to choose a venue for board meetings that was already outfitted with fixed cameras. And that possibility was apparently acted on – possibly at the level of a board committee – with the same outcome as the AADL board vote: it was rejected. In any case that’s the way AATA board member David Nacht recalled it a couple years after that. From the Chronicle’s Dec. 16, 2009 meeting report:

    In board discussion of video recording their meetings, board member David Nacht said that he was personally in favor of video recording meetings, but noted that the board had recently voted down a proposal to video record meetings, and that lacking new information, out of respect for previous board decisions he was disinclined to support it. Responding to Nacht, [Ted] Annis said that the “new information” could be that the AATA had a new CEO and was exploring an extension of its service to more areas of the county.

    But by late summer 2010, the AATA board had moved its board meetings to the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library, because of the availability of fixed cameras there.

    All this by way of making the point that a board might need some additional time and a specific reason to come around to understand that it’s just in the institution’s best interest to just go ahead and videotape the meetings. In the case of the AADL board, the equipment is all there in the library board room already. For heaven’s sake, the AATA board moved its meetings to the AADL board room to take advantage of the fixed cameras there.

  17. By Kathy Griswold
    April 29, 2013 at 10:53 am | permalink

    Email to AADL board, director and secretary sent April 29, 2013

    The Protect Our Libraries (POL) PAC plans to videotape board meetings beginning May 6, 2013, as permitted by the The Open Meetings Act (OMA), in the applicable section listed below. We again request that the board pass a resolution for CTN to record the meetings, both in the 4th floor room equipped for recording and remotely when meetings are scheduled in the branch libraries.

    Please notify me by May 3, if the board has any “reasonable rules and regulations in order to minimize the possibility of disrupting the meeting.” We will be prepared to follow the rules and perform the task in a professional manner.

    *************** Applicable section of OMA ***************

    15.263 Meetings, decisions, and deliberations of public body; requirements; attending or addressing meeting of public body; tape-recording, videotaping, broadcasting, and telecasting proceedings; rules and regulations; exclusion from meeting; exemptions.
    Sec. 3.

    (1) All meetings of a public body shall be open to the public and shall be held in a place available to the general public. All persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting except as otherwise provided in this act. The right of a person to attend a meeting of a public body includes the right to tape-record, to videotape, to broadcast live on radio, and to telecast live on television the proceedings of a public body at a public meeting. The exercise of this right shall not be dependent upon the prior approval of the public body. However, a public body may establish reasonable rules and regulations in order to minimize the possibility of disrupting the meeting.

    Thank you,
    Katherine Griswold

  18. By Alan Goldsmith
    April 29, 2013 at 3:08 pm | permalink

    Kudos to Ms. Griswold and that group for taking the matter into their own hands. It’s shameful the Library won’t do this themselves.

  19. April 29, 2013 at 6:11 pm | permalink

    Very nice, Kathy!

  20. By John Floyd
    May 1, 2013 at 12:49 am | permalink

    Way to go, Kathy.


    Non-answers – even to leading questions that seem to suggest the answers desired by the questioner – do not increase my confidence in the public body that issues them. This disease of non-answering seems pandemic among our local political class. How sad that even the library cannot be quarantined from it.

    In particular, I echo the observation that announcing that the library board voted to not broadcast/tape its meetings does not really address the question, when the question asked “Why” the board made that decision. We all know that the meetings are not being taped – that’s why the question was asked.