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Trouble in Motor City

Last week brought some excitement to the Detroit Public Library when, according to the Detroit Free Press, “FBI agents raided the Detroit Public Library system and the home of its chief administrative officer on Tuesday, removing financial records from the agency that’s been beset by controversy.”

Allegedly, the chief administrative officer did some dirty deeds, and the Free Press had already exposed “allegations of misspending, mismanagement and nepotism.” One offense that pops up is buying “20 lounge chairs for $1,100 apiece at a time it was cutting staff,” when it probably would have been far cheaper to just keep the staff and let library patrons lounge on them instead.

You can read a fuller account at Infodocket, where you can also find out about the other administrative troubles at the DPL.

What I find slightly astounding about this, if one can be only slightly astounded, isn’t the corruption involved. Government corruption, like the poor, will always be with us. It’s that a public library system in a city like Detroit has enough opportunity for much corruption. Trying to run 24 library branches on a budget of about $40 million doesn’t leave much for the corrupt to take.

Thus, in a way, we could see this as an example of how healthy the DPL system really is! Imagine a public library system so awash in money that it attracts corrupt officials!

Or maybe the allegedly corrupt official was allegedly grabbing what he could while he could. This article doesn’t show up in the Infodocket review, but gives a good indication that things weren’t so hot at the DPL last year either, when the library was spending $2.3 million to renovate the main library amidst proposed closings and layoffs.

That’s what made the the $1,100 chairs such an issue, as well as $8,900 stainless steel trash cans. The DPL was apparently buying their trash cans from the same company that used to supply the Pentagon with its $600 toilet seats and $400 hammers.

The chairs don’t seem outrageously priced, since people expect some comfy chairs at a city library, except for the Skillman branch where the deputy director removed “new leather chairs” and replaced “them with wooden ones after homeless people defecated on them.” Ewww. I guess supplying wooden chairs is easier than building restrooms.

Then there are the two $5,000 fireplaces, which supposedly the “staff pushed for…because they had seen them in suburban libraries.” Because if it’s good enough for Grosse Pointe, it’s good enough for Detroit, baby.

The chairman of the library commission explained that the real problem isn’t the cost of the renovation, but the decline in property taxes. As the Free Press explains: “The library is funded by a 4.63 mill tax and officials project revenues will drop 20 percent per year until 2015 because of declining property values and population. The tax that generated about $40 million in 2010 is only expected to produce $14 million by 2015.”

So, apparently if you’re expecting your library funding to decline by 65% within the next few years, spending money on a renovation isn’t really a problem. Everyone knows you have to spend money to make money.

Fortunately, the powers that be are prepared to deal with the situation, which is why “the library set aside $200,000 in taxpayer money two years ago to launch a $20-million fundraising campaign for construction projects.” The only problem with that is that “less than $100 was raised.”

The DPL would have had better luck fundraising if they’d just sold lemonade on the street. For that matter, they could have invested the $200,000 with me, and I would have been happy to give them 10 times what they managed to raise, maybe even 20 times because I’m generous and I like libraries.

If there are some corrupt officials, you have to hand it to them. Anyone profiting from the Detroit Public Library has almost managed to get blood from a stone, and that’s pretty impressive.

And the only people who lose are the DPL employees and the citizens of Detroit, but they’re in pretty bad shape anyway from what I can tell.

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Comments

  1. Public Librarian says:

    *Crickets*

    I am surprised we have nothing to say about this issue. I read your post and other articles about the situation and figured I would come back and weigh in…

    I am concerned that this sort of corruption is more common than we would like to think. Misappropriation of public funds is a serious issue. I wonder what sort of information is enough to get the FBI involved in investigating a library’s administration?

  2. Tired Librarian says:

    People aren’t responding because most libraries and workplaces have better financial controls, usually strangulating financial checks and balances.

    Usually it’s the opposite problem – people have to fill out forms in triplicate, signed by 5 higher levels of authority to get a roll of toilet paper replaced.

    FBI – wow! Detroit is obviously screwed up.

  3. Bookworm says:

    Capital expenditures (building improvement monies) and operating expenses(including salaries)are two entirely different categories in a system’s operating budget. The funds are not interchangeable and cannot be commingled. Usually capital funds cannot be carried over from year to year — it’s a use it or lose it proposition. The capital funds might not have been spent wisely (i.e., the trash cans) but this was in no way related to the layoffs or closings. Dtroit PL may be corrupt and screwed up, but these are bad examples to latch onto.