Monday, June 23, 2014

Grand jury says Mendocino County squeezing library coffers

Mendocino County has been shortchanging and overbilling its public libraries, depriving the taxpayer-funded system of as much as $1 million since 1998, according to a new Mendocino County grand jury report.

Benj Thomas, a Ukiah city councilman and library advisory board member, said most of the library board feels the report is accurate. Much of it reflects discussions its members have had with county officials, he said.

The report raises “serious questions that deserve a complete airing and considering for the public benefit,” he said.

Two county officials disputed allegations in the grand jury report that the county had overcharged the five-branch library system for support services.

Supervisor John Pinches said the library is getting “a real deal” on the service charges.

Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford said she does not understand why the grand jury found some of the fees were unwarranted.

“I am still mystified as to why they would be deemed illegitimate,” Ford said.

The report takes issue with management of the library system, saying the county executive officer exerts more control over the special district than is allowed under state law and county code.

The library board in recent years has raised many of the same questions as the report, creating friction between the board, library staff and county officials, according to the report and board members.

The report implied the friction may have contributed to the unexplained March departures of the county's head librarian and an administrative manager.

Library officials last week referred all questions to the county. County administration officials declined to comment on the report, saying they would issue a written response within the 60 days allowed.

The grand jury questioned a number of county financial practices that have impacted the library.

The county has failed to pay the head librarian's salary and benefits, as required by state law, according to the report. Instead, the library system has funded the position with money from its own budget. The head librarian's position has cost the library $1.28 million since 1998, according to the report.

In addition, the county has kept any interest that might have accrued on library funds deposited in the county's investment pool, according to the report.

The library is a special district that is entitled to a portion of property taxes. It has an estimated budget of $2.5 million that is currently funded nearly equally by property taxes and the 2012 voter-approved sales tax. The county has not provided any supplemental library funding for about five years, said library board member Marc Komer.

The new sales tax revenue has allowed the library to expand its hours, build its collection, add equipment and reinstate children's librarians.

The grand jury questioned the county's method of calculating the library's share of property taxes. The county appears to have shorted the library about $363,365 in property taxes since 1998, according to the report.

The county says it paid the library about $653,000 more than required since 1998, according to a letter sent to the advisory board last year.

The county charges the library for services, equipment and facilities. It waived the fees during the economic downturn but reinstated them after voters approved an eighth-cent sales tax to fund library operations in 2012, according to the grand jury.

The first year, it charged the library almost $80,000, an amount equal to about 29 percent of the new tax revenue, according to the report. In the current fiscal year, the county charged the library $139,351, according to the report.

While it concluded some fees charged by the county are fair, the grand jury contends the county is charging for things it should not. That includes the cost of replacing the library building in Fort Bragg, which was destroyed by fire in 1987. The county used the insurance payment to build a courthouse and to purchase a onetime mortuary to house the new library. The Friends of the Library later raised about $500,000 to remodel the building, according to library board member Marc Komer.

While it cost the county general fund nothing, the county is assessing the library a percentage of the cost of the Fort Bragg building purchase, according to the report. It also treated the donated money for the 2003 remodel as a general fund cost to compute building use charges. Altogether, it is charging the library $9,443 annually for 50 years for the building, according to the grand jury.

The county also is charging annual use fees on equipment that was not purchased with general fund money, including the bookmobile, according to the report.

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