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County Commission requests detailed library budget

County commissioners are upset they've taken the heat over the library board's initial decision to close 12 branches to find $2 million in savings. As they begin assessing how much to cut from the library's budget next year, they're asking the library some tough questions. The county commission and the library board operate as a check and balance. Commissioners hold the library's purse strings, but the library board decides exactly how to spend the money. At such a tight time, commissioners like Jennifer Roberts want to know libraries are stretching their dollars as far as they can. "I used to be a banker so I need numbers," says Roberts. "I need numbers to be able to explain to somebody, 'Here's how I know it's well-managed. Let me show you this operating ratio. Let me show you what's going on with this expense and let me show you how much they're getting out of this squeezed budget amount over here.'" In order to do that, county commissioners say they need more budget details and it's apparently not something the library is used to providing. WFAE asked to see the library's comprehensive budget and was given a one-page document. It has just 22 basic categories like salaries, professional services and maintenance. Not the level of detail the county commission is looking for and library officials seemed confused by WFAE's request. Here's Libraries Director Charles Brown after Tuesday's county commission meeting. I showed him the one-page library budget I'd been given. "This is what we report to the library board," said Brown Brown waves over the library's financial director Chuck Mallas before continuing. BROWN: We have one very large basic revenue stream, Mecklenburg County, and then smaller streams, much smaller streams. MILLER: But you have a lot of different ways you spend your money. MALLAS: Not a whole lot of different ways. That's pretty representative of how we spend it. MILLER: But if I want to know how much you spend on marketing, I can't find that out. MALLAS: You probably haven't seen that budget yet. There's a PR marketing budget. Indeed, there is. That turns out to be part of an 11-page document the library dug up after repeated requests. Library Finance Director Chuck Mallas says all the information is available; it's just not in a single document. "If Charles wanted to know how much was being spent at a branch, I could pull that information. We don't print it," explains Mallas. Other agencies do print that type of detail. For example, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation has a budget notebook that's 6-inches thick. Library Board Chairman Robin Branstrom says it's not that board members overlook the details when budgeting. They ask plenty of questions and staff brings them back the answers. BRANSTROM: I think any person used to working with numbers and budgets would see what a lean budget we have and what a good job we're doing with the money we have to deal with right now. MILLER: But it's hard to draw any conclusions looking at a one-page budget document. BRANSTROM: We're working on restructuring our budget. We're working on building a new business model. We're working on scenarios that interact with the new budget. We're breaking the budget down into very, very small line items. MILLER: What made the library board decide to break it down a lot more into those details? BRANSTROM: Because we had to come up with scenarios of how the library system really is going to look with a 20 percent cut, 30, 40, 50 percent cuts. We're looking at pennies and nickels and dimes now. It can be compared to a company that's in bankruptcy and needs to restructure their budget. It's a level of detail the library will have to get used to in its budget process. The county commission expects to hear more at its meeting on April 20.