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 FY2013.
- 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 last decade.
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 counties.
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:
The 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 discussions.
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.
That 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.
Comparing Library Systems
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 that assertion.
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.
Below is the graphics package attached to the above e-mail.