Keeping Government Entities on Track

A Case Study

With the right tools and the right people, sound government can be an achievable goal. Consider the case of the Traverse Area District Library. About 10 years ago, during the housing boom, the library was flush with cash. That sounds like a desirable problem, but it was not.

“You get mission creep. It was no longer about books,” said resident George Galic, a retired business consultant who was so alarmed by the spending that he sought and received an appointment on the library board.

For example, the library was considering a 10-year lease on a building to create a studio for public access TV and an Internet cafe.

“Neither of those are part of the business of running a public library, and the 1996 operating millage ballot language restricts use of this general fund money to solely be used for a public library,” said Galic.

The lease was defeated, but Galic thought it was time the board took a close look at operations and spending in general. The board hired Hartzell-Mika, a Michigan-based consultancy that specializes in library management, to interview staff and review the library’s organizational structure.

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The board and the consultants also took advantage of a public database maintained by the Library of Michigan on some 380 public libraries operating in the state. Libraries are required to submit data annually as a condition of receiving state aid money. Anyone can view the data to see how a particular library’s use and budget stacks up with others.

The Traverse City library, for example, had 23 percent more full-time staff than comparably sized library systems, yet it employed fewer professional librarians with graduate degrees (12 percent of total staff versus an average of 32 percent). As a result, its salary and benefits were higher than others.

Interviews with employees determined problems with organizational efficiency. Many workers were uncertain who their real supervisor was. It seemed one person made key decisions even though that was not part of that individual’s job description.

To Galic and some members of the board, this indicated a problem with cronyism and may have explained why the administration had such a large full-time staff and why the library had failed to update its technology. Galic said the system was so antiquated it was hard to find someone willing to run it. There was also a problem with new material not being cataloged and circulated.

“So, it might be six months before you could get what you wanted,” says Galic, who believed the new material was being distributed to acquaintances of library staff.

Nearly 8 years later, the library has greatly improved. The state's public library database provides a number of variables for determining how much a community values its library system. One measure is circulation. The Traverse City library circulates 12.61 pieces of material per capita versus the average of 9.66. Per capita visits are also higher, 6.58 versus 5.08.

The $45.22 per capita operating income increased slightly in 2014 to $47.60, but Galic says thanks to the board’s analysis, more of that money is being spent on material and technology, not staffing. Additionally, the library spends far less than libraries of a similar size. For example, per capita income in Kalamazoo is $97.24 and in Ann Arbor, it’s $76.73.

“In the case of Ann Arbor, basically, we cost at least 62 percent of what they do, even though we’re about two-thirds the size, with much lower property valuation,” said Galic. The library millage in Ann Arbor is 2.0 compared to 1.1 for the Traverse City library.

Additional information in the database includes details on branches; hours; square footage; collections; services; programs; Internet connectivity; technology; millages; operating income and expenditures; capital income and expenditures; nonresident fees; and staffing and salary information.

It is not enough, however, to have comparable data to run a sound government system. Galic says boards need to be filled with knowledgeable and dedicated people.

“You need a least one person who is going to be a lightning rod, to ask the tough questions, to challenge the vote,” said Galic. He describes himself in that role because he is retired, financially independent and not seeking political office.

He said it also helped to have a forensic accountant on the board as well as other civic-minded professionals.

“We improved the range of product and selection. We improved the use of the library, but most importantly, the value for the taxpayer,” said Galic, who is hopeful that with improving technology, similar data will become more available for other government boards.

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