NARRAGANSETT – The Town’s request to waive a Maintenance of Effort (MOE) requirement for state aid to its annual library budget was denied last week by the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services (OLIS). The state agency denied the request due to a lack of evidence from the town showing the need to waive the requirement (such as a financial hardship), which dictates that municipal libraries must be level-funded, or funded at least the same amount as in the previous fiscal year, in order to be eligible for state aid. The town may appeal the state ruling by Nov. 30.
“As the waiver request does not provide evidence of the above-mentioned requirements–primarily that the reduction of funding was a result of severe financial constraints for town government, and that other town departments experienced similar reductions in funding–the request for a waiver of the MOE requirement is denied,” a Nov. 20 letter to the town from Karen Mellor, OLIS Chief of Library Services, reads.
The town receives about $181,000 annually in state aid to its library budget. In April, citing what it called a surplus in excess of $600,000, the Narragansett Town Council elected in a split vote to reduce its allocation to the library by more than half, providing only $400,000 in town taxpayer dollars for the library board’s annual budget and operations for FY 2020. The town last fiscal year, under a different council, funded the library board $841,000. The OLIS letter notes the reduction, along with state law establishing state aid to libraries, and notes previous communications between the town and state agency regarding the issue.
“As indicated in my correspondence of Sept. 27, 2019, the Town of Narragansett does not meet the MOE requirement, as required by [Rhode Island General Laws],” states the letter from Mellor. “For the Town to meet this requirement, it must appropriate for FY 2020 an amount not less than $814,743 to fund library services or seek of the MOE requirement; the town has appropriated $400,000 for library services in FY 2020 and submitted a request for a waiver of this requirement.”
According to OLIS, a MOE requirement waiver request from a municipality must provide evidence of the following, extenuating circumstances that prevent fully funding MOE, that a decrease in funding of library services is comparable to decreases in funding of other municipal services, that there has been “serious consideration” of what percentage of the municipal budget is represented by library services and how reducing that will help balance the overall budget, and that those funding reductions would not impact the library meeting state standards, among other reasoning. The town failed to provide evidence of any of the requirements.
The split between the library board and town expands beyond the budget dispute, however. The two bodies have been at odds over a new library project in the Pier Marketplace, with the library board championing the move and a majority on the council fighting it due to fiscal concerns. The April reduction to the library budget came during a year of turmoil for the library project, with the town council majority electing to put the property it was proposed for up for sale in January. The library board maintains the $600,000 “surplus,” as deemed by members of the council majority, was actually being saved in anticipation of completing the new library project in the pier, as well as to pay pensions of two library employees whom the town council denied benefits to earlier this year. Councilors have proposed the library board give the town approximately $400,000 from its funds, which the town would then appropriate back to the library board, in order to level fund the library, meet the MOE requirement and be granted state aid. The proposal, however, has not been completed, and the board has contested the deal, stating the library fund also contains monies raised from private donations and fundraising.
“I am disappointed that our Board of Trustees failed to return the surplus it was sitting on, which would have allowed the town to receive a partial allocation from OLIS,” said Narragansett Town Council president Matthew Mannix. “My colleague, Rick Lema, laid out this option for the Board at the October 7, 2019 town council meeting, but the Board, unfortunately, did not act on it. This Board has not acted in the best interest of Narragansett’s taxpayers or the library patrons.”
Council president pro tem Jill Lawler agreed, stating the library board did not come under the council’s jurisdiction regarding finances.
“It is disappointing that the town needed to apply for the waiver in the first place,” she said. “The Library Board of Trustees made the choice not to transfer $414,743 of their approximate $929,000 account balance (approximately $600,000 of which is taxpayer dollars) back to the town so that the town could then submit to OLIS ensuring future services would not be disrupted. The Library Board of Trustees made the conscious decision to hurt the very people that it is their sole mission to serve, the library patrons. Because the library is not a town department the town does not have the ability to touch their account balance, and they are able to accumulate unused funds. This has become problematic.”
According to Narragansett Library Chair Laurie Kelly, the library board attempted to negotiate with the town council to prevent the loss in state funding, proposing a deal in October that would restore town pensions and benefits for library employees in exchange for approximately $400,000 and subsequent appropriation. The council, however, according to the chair, was unresponsive.
At a town council meeting Oct. 21, Mannix claimed “the ball was in the library board’s court” regarding the negotiations.
The OLIS denial will likely affect the town’s ability to participate in the Library of Rhode Island network, which allows residents to access resources from over 200 libraries across the state and beyond.
According to its website, OLIS “strengthens, connects and empowers libraries to advance knowledge, connect communities and enrich the lives of all Rhode Islanders.”
“OLIS has the statutory authority and responsibility to administer state and federal funding to develop programs that support and advance library services in the state,” the website reads. “It is part of the Executive Branch of state government located in the Department of Administration, Enterprise Technology Systems and Support, and operates under the direction of the Chief of Library Services. OLIS works with the Library Board of Rhode Island to establish priorities and policies to carry out its mission.”
The town may appeal the OLIS decision in writing by Nov. 30. Any appeal would be reviewed by the Library Board of Rhode Island at its next regular meeting or within six weeks. If an appeal is filed, a decision is expected from OLIS within 10 days after the appeal hearing.