The following is Terry Maynard's response to Chairman Bulova's e-mail yesterday.
Re: Message from Chairman Bulova regarding Fairfax County Public Libraries
Dear Chairman Bulova,
Thank you for your e-mail.
At the risk of taking too much more of your time, let me respond to some
of the points you made.
Let me start by looking at the first paragraph that notes
the Library's 95% (and occasionally better) customer survey satisfaction
rate. You and I and everyone on this
e-mail distribution knows that the validity and utility of such a survey is
only as good as its design and its execution.
This paper survey, given to and generally returned quickly by a few
hundred rushed adult library users annually trying to leave the library who are
willing to fill one out hardly represents an independent, systematic, balanced
assessment. In fact, at the Board’s direction more than a
year ago, FCPL is going through the process of developing a new customer
satisfaction survey that may actually be useful in measuring customer
satisfaction across all media and customer bases.
In the meantime, as the County’s Department of Community and
Neighborhood Services reported in
a 2012 presentation
(p. 6), "A customer's satisfaction with a product
or service has virtually no bearing on his or her likelihood to return to buy
from that company again—unless the customer is made to feel “totally
satisfied,” “wowed,” “exuberant” or “elated.”"
As that brief suggests, the decline in library usage—a decision
not to return—as reflected in the Library's annual budget "dashboard"
and other departmental performance metrics
gives a much more accurate view of the library's performance and customer
satisfaction than the current survey.
Based on my compilation of that County Library data going back to FY2000
(and in the face of shifting metrics), here is what I have found out about
Library usage over the last decade:
- "Contacts per capita"--the broadest
gauge of County Library interaction with the county's residents--has dropped by
31% from its peak in FY2010 and 10% from FY2004 through FY2013;
- "Library visits" per capita has
dropped by 20% from its peak in FY2010 and 12% from FY2004 to FY2013;
- "Circulation per capita" has dropped
by 14% from its peak in FY2009 and remained constant from FY2004 to FY 2013;
- "Library website page views per
capita" has dropped by 54% from its peak in FY2009 and 29% from FY2004 to
- Maybe most alarmingly, the percentage of the
County population that is registered users (cardholders) of the library system
has dropped 42% from its peak in FY2004 to FY2013 in a generally steady
downward spiral unaffected by either the boom or bust of the latter half of the
Although only a sampling of the Library performance metrics,
these data show that people are voting their dissatisfaction with Fairfax
County Public Library by not linking, borrowing, visiting, or even contacting
the Library in ever larger numbers as the Library's budget, staff, and
materials inventory have eroded in the last decade. (Note:
I have attached a small set of charts to this e-mail that reports the
library’s self-reported performance in all these metrics and other points made
here to help you visualize my comments.)
And there really isn't any reason County residents should be
satisfied with the County’s public library system as it currently
operates. In a 2014 survey, Fairfax
County's library system ranked 15th out of 19 public library systems in the
Washington Metropolitan Area, earning no quality "stars," according
to the Library Journal Index of Public Library Service (as reported by the
Washington Post). Moreover, the County's
361 points in that "scoring" is based on much the same factors as
discussed in the preceding paragraph.
Overall, the County’s score was less than one-third that scored by
"five-star" public library systems in Falls Church and Howard County
and one-half or less than that of "three-star" Loudoun and Arlington
That said, I appreciate interest in following up on the
concerns of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations although it
does not appear that you have done so fully.
In particular, you note that the County's own audit staff looked at the
library’s business processes last year and found no reportable findings.
- First, I'm sure you would agree that an
examination of business processes isn't a "comprehensive fiscal
audit." It provides absolutely no
"fiscal" information. In fact,
the Audit staff's report is five paragraphs long on one typewritten page. It is by no means "comprehensive." If there is a more thorough audit document
behind that brief memo, it should be made available to the public.
- Second, you probably also understand that the
County's audit staff, while it does a commendable job (as I've tracked on
Silver Line construction), is not "independent" although it may have
been sufficient for the FCFCA's purposes.
From my perspective, "independent" means that the audit is
performed by an entity outside the County government, presumably a private CPA
firm or possibly the state auditor.
The Library Inventory
On the question of the adequacy of the Library’s
inventorying processes, many of us concerned about the decline of the County
library have requested--and received--editions of the library's annual
materials inventory report, the one you showed at the Board meeting last
week. Unfortunately, none of us have been
able to obtain the FY2014 report, a fiscal year that ended more than five
months ago. Last week, I submitted a
VFOIA request for the data based on your remarks on the library's inventory at
the December 2nd Board
meeting. Here is an excerpt from the
e-mail I received yesterday in return from FCPL:
FY2014 Materials Inventory report you requested is being revised and is in
development. Changes are being made to
reflect the transition to floating where its guiding principle reflects system
wide ownership versus branch ownership.
All reports, therefore, must be revised and will be a snapshot in time
reflecting the collection on the day the report was generated.
Changes to this report were discussed during
the Floating and Discards Ad-Hoc Committee meetings and with the resulting
focus groups. At the present, we are
still working through the data parsing and accurate data retrieval from the
catalog. When the report is running and
has been adequately verified, it will be available for review. We hope to have these new and improved reports
ready early next year.
I would add that nothing in the past materials inventories
indicated that the items "belonged" in a particular library, merely
where the materials were at the end of the fiscal year. I and others always presumed it reflected a count of what was in a library branch or
Tech Ops--"a snapshot in time
reflecting the collection on the day the report was generated"--not
what should be in that branch based on "ownership."
So the complexities of the floating library inventory seem
to be overstated. In fact, I am
concerned that we are being stonewalled by FCPL in obtaining the FY2014
materials inventory because the County's library materials inventory shrunk
significantly again last year. That
said, I will wait to see just how “early
next year" I actually receive the inventory I requested, in
particular, whether it arrives in time to play a role in your FY2016 budget
I agree absolutely with FCFCA than an audit of the library's
material inventory is needed based on my own analytical experience with various
FCPL reports trying to document what the library possesses, acquired,
discarded, and where those items are.
For example, I have found significant discrepancies between the
county-wide Materials Inventory, the Collection Overview, other records of acquisitions
and discards, etc., that have been made available to me in the last year.
Let me give you just one example for FY2013: The year-end total of items in Materials
Inventory for FY2013 less the same value for FY2012 shows a net loss of 107,000
items. On the other hand, the year-end
Collection Overview shows a net loss of 38,000 items (items added minus items
discarded). That’s a 69,000 item discrepancy.
The failure of the county's various inventories to match
closely suggests that an audit of the actual inventory and how the library
conducts that process would be helpful for everyone. It seems especially timely because the County
library is now changing how it counts materials in its annual materials
inventory. What's the point of changing
a system that is seemingly error-filled without correcting it and
resolving--and communicating--the differences between the two inventory methods. Ideally, this would include a spreadsheet “crosswalk”
between the two inventory methods that makes the changes absolutely transparent
and validates the new methodology.
Auditing the Friends of
the Library Groups
I will admit that there may be some confusion in the FCFCA's
request for an audit of the "System Gift Fund."
The few references I have found to this fund on
the County’s website, going
back to an FY2006 audit of the library
, state consistently that the Friends
will split the revenues from book sales 50/50 with the County, the County’s
half being deposited in the Library System Gift Fund.
Nothing more is said anywhere in the County
website about this fund.
I believe this fund is what you called “the
Departmental Gift Fund” in the Board’s discussion of this matter.
I know that the FCFCA is interested in an
audit of this fund, and the Board has directed that audit in its resolution.
I’m confident FCFCA finds this responsive.
said, I can not understand why you insist that the FCFCA requested
that the Board include the Library Foundation and the Friends of the
Library groups as
well as the Departmental Gift Fund in its audit. Nothing
in my discussions with involved FCFCA volunteers suggested they were seeking an
audit of these private, outside groups despite your public assertions to the
contrary. More importantly, nothing in the FCFCA
resolution or its letter to you indicates that it is remotely interested
auditing either of these entities. If for
whatever reason you want to audit these entities, own it; don’t say FCFCA asked
for it. That said, I have no doubt that the Board’s
decision to audit the Friends of the Library groups will put a chill in public
support for the library and the Board over this matter.
The Library Budget,
Staffing, and Inventory Cuts
The library’s General Fund adopted budget in FY2015 is the
same as it was in FY2005--$27.9 million—and, on a real spending basis, has declined
by 28%. That sum accounts for less than 0.8%
of the County’s General Fund budget. Actual
Library General Fund spending peaked in FY2007 at $33.8 million during the
height of “the bubble” and has declined steadily since. Meanwhile, the County’s General Fund adopted
budget in total has increased by nearly a
billion dollars over the same time frame to $3,716,363,975, remaining
general constant in real dollar terms. So while the County’s budget has grown, the
library’s has not and has resulted in reduced library purchasing power.
Similarly, library positions have been cut over the last
decade while overall County positions have increased. Library positions in FY2004 were 458 and, in
FY2013, it had dropped to 402, a decline of 14%. In contrast, County-wide regular positions
(excluding schools) increased from 11,443 positions in FY2004 to 12,281 in
FY2013, an increase of seven percent.
Most disconcerting from the perspective of library users has
been the steady decline in the available materials over the last decade. According to Library documents, the inventory
peaked at 2.8 million items in FY2005 and has since slid to 2.3 million items
in FY2013, a 16% reduction and a net loss of 444,000 items. That includes the loss of more than 500,000
books offset by the addition of about 77,000 “non-book” items.
I am unaware of any other County department or agency that
has suffered such disproportionate losses in funding, staffing, and critical
material resources over the last decade, although they may exist. At the same time, because of the very small
role the Library plays in the County’s budget, the reduction in library resources
has had--and will have--virtually no effect in County spending and staffing, which continue to
grow. In fact, the County could close the entire
library system next year and not cover a third of the $101 million revenue shortfall
the County Executive has forecast for FY2016. There are other huge departments and
agencies in the County that could be trimmed modestly to great effect on the
budget and minimal effect on their ability to perform their mission. And
there is always the option of raising
property tax rates, an admittedly unattractive option in a Board
election year. It will be a challenge, but the Library should not be
made a sacrificial lamb again.
I am disappointed that your e-mail discounts my comparisons of library spending,
particularly library spending per household, by suggesting they are not
comparable. Let me take a short look at
Montgomery—and other Maryland counties—receive much larger
state subsidies for their libraries than Fairfax and other Virginia counties do. The fact of the matter is that those
subsidies are paid for by state taxes, just not local taxes. It does not come from money minted in
Annapolis. The impact on households and
businesses is essentially the same even though the routing of the money is
different. I suspect that the state aid
is proportional to county population, which means there is no difference from
Virginia on a gross basis, the money just follow a different route. Virginia just shifts the funding opportunity
more toward the counties. On the other
hand, Maryland’s library subsidy may favor the less affluent counties in the
state, a situation Fairfax County doesn’t meaningfully confront with the
limited state aid it receives. The issue
for affluent Fairfax County then is to step up and fill the gap in state
funding for our residents.
This brings me to the claim that other nearby Virginia
counties are also not comparable to Fairfax County.
In particular, you cite Prince William County as having a much smaller
population. That’s true, but that also
means they have a much smaller tax base and we also know that Prince William is
not as affluent as Fairfax. Their
County Board just recognizes the value of its library system in the county’s
quality of life and is prepared to invest more heavily in it on a per household
basis. The fact that Fairfax County’s circulation
rate is greater than Prince William’s simply shows that there is a greater
demand for library services here, services that are not now likely being met
given the reduction in library resources.
More County resources devoted to our library would likely increase the
circulation rate—and that’s a good thing.
And you didn’t even mention Arlington or Loudoun counties,
counties that are more comparable to Fairfax County in both population and
affluence. And yet these counties are
willing to spend about twice as much per household on their library systems as
Fairfax County. In fact, both systems
earned “three-star” ratings as evaluated by the national Library Journal. That
is a goal worthy of the Fairfax County library system.
Let me thank you for your interest in our library system and
this opportunity to respond to your e-mail.
I believe that the library system has deteriorated terribly over the
last decade without having any significant impact in relieving the County’s
increasingly significant economic challenges.
It is time to quit using the library as a way to address broad County
fiscal problems if for no other reason than it comprises such as minimal part
of the County budget.
Let’s work together to enhance the library system so that
our County becomes a more attractive place to live, work, and play, which in
turn will help stimulate the County’s economic engine. I look forward to the opportunity to discuss
our library system with you at your convenience.
In the meantime, I wish you and your family, and the many other
recipients of this communication the best of the holidays and a very happy,
healthy, and prosperous New Year.
Below is the graphics package attached to the above e-mail.