Cash-strapped governments looking for page-turner reading are checking out the Metropolitan Library System's financial books. The Library Commission last week passed a $55 million budget for the system that includes an $18 million surplus and an 11 percent compensation boost for library employees — a stark contrast to the layoffs, furloughs, shortfalls and service reductions affecting most government agencies. The increase includes a 4 percent hike to employee salaries and wages. The rest of the increase covers higher insurance costs, said Library Commissioner David Greenwell, the commission's disbursement agent. "We're in a good position right now,” library system spokeswoman Kim Terry said. The library system has about 415 employees operating 17 libraries in Oklahoma County. Its firm financial footing in today's tough economy evoked reactions both envious and curious. "I'd sure like to know how they did it,” said Gil Hensley, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 123, the union that represents Oklahoma City police officers. "Maybe they could give a lesson to some other people in government.” The Oklahoma City Council last week passed an $876 million budget that includes no raises and cuts 100 city jobs, including 22 police officers. Half of the city's general fund revenue comes from sales taxes. That differs from the library system, which is "fairly unique” among state library systems because it is funded largely by county property taxes, Terry said. The library system has received $27.8 million in Oklahoma County property taxes in the past fiscal year, county treasurer records show. "We don't rely upon sales taxes, which do tend to fluctuate quite a bit based upon the current economic situation,” Greenwell said. "Real estate values tend to be more constant.”
Other budgetsAlso largely funded by property taxes are Oklahoma City Public Schools, which plans at least 167 layoffs due to budget shortfalls, and Oklahoma County, which has trimmed its budget the past three years. The budget was approved 16-1, with the lone no vote coming from Oklahoma County Commissioner Ray Vaughn, chairman of the board of county commissioners. "I'm not against libraries. I'm not against reading. I'm not against books,” Vaughn said. "But I sit on a board that manages the entire county ... and we are in our third year of cutting our budget, so when I saw what the budget was going to be for the library, I just couldn't in good conscience vote to approve that.” Next year's $55 million library system budget is a 7.8 percent increase from this fiscal year's $51 million budget. The budget's $18 million surplus will go in a reserve fund for future library construction or renovations, Terry said.
Timing said to be wrongAt the state level, hundreds of state agency employees have lost their jobs or been furloughed in the past year. Lawmakers passed a $6.7 billion budget in May that is 7.6 percent less than the current year's budget. The largest state worker's group, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, spent considerable time during this past Legislative session lobbying lawmakers to save state workers' jobs. Typically, the group lobbies for pay and benefits increases. OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley said "it is difficult to imagine a scenario” this year in which a public agency like the library system could justify salary increases and a multimillion dollar budget surplus. "Our association would not begrudge a public employee a pay raise in most circumstances but the timing of this along with the large carryover in their budget does not look good to the association nor is it easily sold to the public,” Zearley said.