The Blount County Public Library’s efforts to obtain complete funding for county-requested salary raises has stirred a wider discussion over roles, leadership and funding methods as officials from the county grapple with community pressure and fiscal 2020 budget details.
Representatives from the library — frequently accompanied by local supporters — appeared at Maryville, Alcoa and Blount County meetings in the first two weeks of this month, posing a series of challenging questions about BCPL’s future.
At a Maryville council meeting, nearly 50 supporters stood in solidarity with repeated requests to fully fund the library.
Library Director K.C. Williams and Anjanae Brueland with its financial services department spoke to each of the Alcoa commissioners after a June 11 meeting.
Community members appeared along with library board of trustees member Susan Schneibel at a Blount County Budget Committee meeting the same night.
Now, with Alcoa and Maryville’s budgets passed, the only budget that remains to be set in stone is the county’s.
Blount has felt a large portion of the pressure to fix the funding problem after a social media and email campaign purportedly sent commissioners thousands of messages from concerned community members advocating for the commission to raise funding numbers to match a county-required boost in salaries and benefits totaling nearly $400,000.
Each governing body has increased their funding but conflicts are still outstanding.
In a significant step forward, the Blount County Budget Committee voted on a June 10 resolution to restore $179,445 to the library, money that had been taken out.
Committee Member Sharon Hannum moved the appropriations resolution be amended to transfer the funds back to the library after they had been absent from the 2020 budget in May.
After several increases from each contributing governmental body, the library now finds itself only about $200,000 shy of its goal to be completely funded for fiscal 2020, Williams said in an interview.
Schneibel said when the Evergreen study requiring the raises was published, the library added increases to their budget and sent them to the commission early this year and received no objections until the money was absent from a May 7 county budget proposal.
During the budget committee meeting, Commissioner Tom Stinnett voiced the same concerns other city and county officials have voiced since the library’s financial issues became public.
He prefaced his opinion by noting he had inadvertently voted on May 7 for a budget that had removed a portion of library funding.
“I want to apologize,” he said. “I voted yes on that and did not realize that we had moved that money out ... I dropped the ball on that.”
He continued by adding he had met personally with Williams to address his concerns about communication. He said he received thousands of generated emails during a time when his father was in the hospital.
He explained further that he knew how important the library was, but that it did not take precedence over local services like 911 operations or the sheriff’s department.
“This committee has a lot of things they have to consider,” Stinnett said. “We can’t make Maryville city or Alcoa city do anything. We ought to be very thankful that they want to participate because they don’t have to participate. It says ‘Blount County Library.’ If they want to pull out, we’re shipwrecked.”
Stinnett concluded his remarks recalling a citizen who recently told commissioners they “should be embarrassed” about the situation.
“I’m not embarrassed,” Stinnett said. “We don’t print money.”
Commissioner Mike Caylor asked for a clarification before the vote to move reinstated funds to the commission passed 4-0. “Am I correct in saying that that will fully fund what the Evergreen study recommended for that particular program?” he asked.
“That restores what the county had originally proposed in its budget recommendation for the library,” Director of Accounts & Budgets Randy Vineyard replied.
But a day of progress was followed by a day of complications for the library as an appointment to the Ocoee River Regional Library Board of Trustees was delayed in the June 11 commission workshop.
Andy Sneed was set to be appointed fill a recently empty spot on the board as a representative for the library and the commission on the regional board.
But commissioners interjected with concerns about a general lack of representation on the BCPL board.
“It’s my understanding that according to the bylaws of the Blount County Library that this board can have one elected official each from the county, the Alcoa Commission and one from the Maryville City Council,” Commissioner Ron French said. He then asked why this wasn’t the case.
Schneibel — who was at the meeting — replied to French saying it was possible, but that it was the commission’s responsibility to nominate members to the board.
“The bylaws are not being adhered to,” Commissioner Mike Akard pointed out during a discussion that followed. “This body is supposed to have a representative on that board.”
Bylaws for the library board dated with a signature from January 23, 2018, confirm board members are appointed by each of the three governing bodies and says “not more than one elected official each from the Blount County Commission, the Alcoa City Commission and the Maryville City Council may serve on the Board ...”
However, there are no references in the bylaws requiring city or county officials be on the library board.
Schneibel said the board would welcome elected officials if they were appointed, but noted that the time commitment was more than just a monthly meeting.
A member who served on both the local and regional board would be responsible for coordinating with both entities on keeping the library current with state practices, programs and grants, Schneibel explained during the workshop.
Commissioners delayed voting Sneed to the regional board, however, indicating they wanted to know more about what the position implied.
French said he would like to see more official representation on the library board, pointing out communication between the library and the governing entities might work more smoothly as a result.
Earlier in the month, Schneibel’s appearance at the Maryville City Council was accompanied by a twofold effort to quash rumors about the library and celebrate the increase in programming it has seen since Williams became director.
“I want to set the record straight,” she told council members.
She said several prevailing notions about the library were not true.
First, that the library demanded a 27% increase in salary for full-time professional staff and that it had suddenly increased the number of full-time professional staff in the past year in order to take advantage of the Evergreen study salary increases.
Also, Schneibel said rumors had been circulating that the library did not have permission to create those positions and not did make adjustments in the total number of employees while doing so.
She addressed each of these, first noting 13 of 28 long-term employees are in professional positions with advanced degrees and their significantly increased salaries are only just catching up to similar counties’ pay scales.
The library also did not suddenly increase their staff, Schneibel said, explaining that since 2014, it has been gradually adding professionals where before only part-time staff were employed to run programs.
“Staffing changes since 2014 have been slow and incremental,” she added.
Finally, Schneibel said staffing decisions were not made without approval. Changes were made that stayed within the bottom line of their salary allocations and not questioned by the county, she added. Part-time staff were cut as new full-time positions were introduced, she confirmed, but followed by showing a number of graphs that pointed to a dramatic increase in programs and services.
With staffing increases since 2014, the library has also increased the number and variety of programs it offers, programs threatened by a breached MOE contract with the state if the library has to decrease hours due to a smaller staff.
“The number of programs we offer has grown far faster than our staffing numbers,” Schneibel concluded in her presentation to Maryville council members. “I think we’re doing a remarkable job in coordinating with our progressional and support staff to deliver this level of service to the public.”
Though the library may not reach its total funding goal by the time every contributing government passes its budget, officials say they are eager to continue to build transparency. Conversations about the contract between funding bodies to provide a certain percent of the MOE are already underway and Schneibel urged commissioners and council members to pursue a conversation to help repair relationships as soon as this July.
Until then, the final budget decisions fall on Blount’s commission as they bring budget committee and board appointment votes to consideration June 20.
Schneibel also said Maryville has indicated it may make an amendment to their budget depending on the county’s action.