Aaron West, The Triplicate

The Del Norte Public Library has nearly $350,000 in the bank, but you won't see it in the Library Board's proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

At its meeting last week, the Del Norte Library District Board of Trustees approved its 2014andndash;2015 proposed budget, which lists the expenditures and revenues balancing out to $180,500. According to last year's independent audit, as well as County Auditor Clinton Schaad's records, however, there's $346,741.77 in the library fund, plus another $40,997.82 in a building fund - all numbers Schaad confirmed when he showed up at the meeting last Thursday at the trustees' invitation.

"What I explained to them is that they do have that amount of funds available,"Schaad said, who made clear that he doesn't believe any of the trustees were trying to hide any money maliciously. "But it's up to them to spend it or not spend it. They can if they want to - I don't see any code that says they can't sit on that money and let it grow bigger and bigger. But then again, if you're having program problems or your building's falling apart, the public's going to ask, 'Why aren't you fixing these things if you have the money?'"

Schaad's appearance at the trustees' monthly meeting came as the result of months of confusion about exactly how much money the library had and how much was available to be spent, according to Library Board Trustee John Mertes. The money, which Schaad described as "a lot for (the library)," began to pile up after the Library Board started cutting costs in the early 2000s, and it went unpublicized until Mertes saw it in Schaad's monthly balance report in November last year.

"Basically, I was alerted to (the reserve) when I got a copy of the financial statements via the (county) auditor's office," Mertes said. "All of a sudden my eyes go wide open. I thought, 'Can this be real?' I wanted to check it out to make sure there wasn't an error someplace, so I did a recap of the independent auditor's reports and saw that yeah, we do have this money."

And then began the confusion. Mertes, who has a background in accounting and was appointed to the Board in summer 2008, let the other trustees know that the money was there, but he says they didn't believe him, or at least didn't believe the money was available to be spent.

When members of the public asked trustees about additional programs, pay raises for library employees or additional equipment like computers, "They kept saying, 'We don't have any money,'" Mertes said. "My guess is that they had little to no idea thatmoney was there. The general gist was that we didn't have any money."

This went on until June, Mertes said, until Schaad came to the meeting and backed up Mertes' claims.

As for the other trustees, the general consensus from Board Chair Dennis Sutton and Trustee Colleen Luttrell is that they knew there was a reserve, they just didn't know exactly how much, and they didn't want to broadcast it lest it be squandered.

Trustee Jeanne Bishop did not return calls for comment.

"We knew we had money; we just didn't want to advertise it to everybody and cause the problems we're having now," Sutton said. "We have money in reserve, and it's there for a reason - in case we need it. We were working (hard) to get back to where we could afford to be open," he said, in reference to when the library was overspending and open only 20 hours a week before 2006. "We're not hiding anything. We're going to allocate it so we can get moving to our goals."

At its June meeting, the Board approved keeping the library open an additional day each week starting in mid-July (new hours will be Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), and it approved hiring a couple more part-time employees. However, that money is coming from the already budgeted $180,500 and not the $346,741.

Sutton said that the $346,741 he describes as reserve money is being put aside for unspecified future needs, such as more books, equipment or matching funds for potential future grant money to be used for a new building farther inland out of the tsunami zone.

He also said that the money wasn't on the proposed budget because of an oversight, but now that Schaad showed them where to include it in the budget it will be on the final one, which is due before Aug. 31.

"We didn't do it intentionally. It'll be on the final budget," Sutton said. "It was kind of an oversight. I wasn't paying good enough attention. It's been that way for quite a while, but now we know that it's supposed to be on the proposed budget, and it'll be there next time."

Schaad said he felt that until he clarified budget issues at the meeting, some Board members might have been confused.

For instance, as Schaad pointed out at the June meeting, the library's proposed budget has zero dollars budgeted in the "book fines" line item for 2014andndash;2015, which has seen revenue between $4,400 and $4,700 in the past few years.

"That came up, and there were some questions about that one," Schaad said. "I told them that when they do their budgeting they need to look at historical data. If you're getting a couple thousand every year you can kind of bet on that."

Luttrell, however, in an interview with the Triplicate said that she wasn't willing to "guess" in regard to that number and even disagreed there was so much money coming in for book fines.

"We don't guesstimate," Luttrell said. "We just wait and the revenue comes in or it doesn't. We don't know, the county doesn't know, and nobody knows. We could have put $10,000 in for book fines if we wanted to. Do you think that's realistic? Not hardly. $4,500? I wish - more like $450."

Of course, as Schaad said, budgeting prowess isn't a prerequisite for serving on a board.

"To be on a board, you don't have to be a financial person; you don't have to be an accountant," Schaad said. "And you wouldn't want all like-minded people on a board anyway because you lose that diversity."

Board members say a passion for the library motivates them.

"We're here to ensure that the library stays open," Luttrell said. "We love the library."

No elections since 1990

Ensuring diversity on the Board is something that could be handled better, according to the Del Norte County Grand Jury, which has called for a more open election process. In its 2011andndash;2012 Final Report the Grand Jury wrote that the election process for the Library Board has been bypassed in recent years, reporting that the last time the library district was on the ballot was Nov. 6, 1990.

According to the report, trustees - while not violating any laws or government codes - have avoided appearing on the ballot by either running unopposed or by appointing a replacement trustee when a current trustee steps down.

"The Board's chairman made a point at one of the meetings the Grand Jury attended that anyone interested in becoming a member of the library district's Board should contact the Board directly or the library manager, as there were existing members ready to step down," the Grand Jury wrote in its report. "This comment, along with other facts brought to our attention, indicates how the Library Board and library manager have circumvented the election process."

Sutton said he didn't have a problem with this process, adding that it saves money with election filing fees. Besides, he said, anyone interested in becoming a Board member would be paying attention during library meetings.

The most recent trustee, Mark Raintree, was appointed during the Board's June meeting after Carol Layton stepped down in May.

Mertes disagreed with Sutton, saying that the circumvention of the election process and the Board's current issues with budgeting go hand in hand.

"There hasn't been a quote-unquote election - it's been avoided for years," Mertes said. "The rationale is that we didn't want to spend money on election costs, so we'll just convince someone to drop out. Well this Board hasn't done much and doesn't seem that responsive to the community needs - it doesn't spend any available money. They just want to keep everything quiet. Everything's tied together, and without a change in the Board, I don't think things will change. And that money, I don't know what they will do with it. I don't think the existing Board wants to make changes."

The Library Board of Trustees meets on the fourth Thursday of the month at 9 a.m. in the Library Reading Room. Public notice of the monthly meetings and agenda items are provided in advance. The Board's proposed library budget is now open for public comment, which will be heard at the July meeting.

Reach Aaron West at awest@triplicate.com.