A referendum on whether the New Paltz town budget should increase its annual support for the Elting Memorial Library in 2016 by $70,000 should be appearing on town residents’ ballot forms this coming Election Day. With town supervisor Susan Zimet absent, the remaining members voted 3-1 at the town board’s September 24 meeting to refer the library’s petition for a public vote on the proposed increase to the county board of elections. The sole dissenting vote was cast by councilman Kevin Barry, who contended that Elting was “not in compliance with registration requirements” for association libraries under New York State Education Department regulations.
Representatives, volunteers and supporters of the library turned out in force at the meeting after questions about the justification for the 17.8 percent increase were raised at the previous meeting of the town board. The library’s trustees asked for a raise in the town government’s support from the $396,000 level that has been maintained since 2014 to $466,000.
The tentative 2016 town budget adopted last week reflects a flat $396,000 allocation, but the library fund is not taken into account in calculating the town’s compliance with the governor’s restrictions on the property-tax-levy increase restrictions, according to deputy supervisor Jeff Logan. “This is outside the tax cap, but we are very sensitive to what our residents are being asked to pay,” he said. “We’re increasing our budget less than 1.5 percent over two years.”
Library board president Richard Heyl de Ortiz told the town board that Elting has long languished near the bottom of the list of libraries of its size in terms of per-capita municipal support. “Our funding level ranks fifteenth out of 20 libraries … in similarly sized communities” in Ulster and Dutchess Counties, he said, despite the fact that Elting is open more hours per week and serves more users than most libraries in its category.
As a result of its level of tax support, Heyl de Ortiz explained, the library had been unable to maintain its reserve funds at the level recommended for not-for-profits (an amount able to sustain the organization for six months). He later told the press that two major capital expenditures in 2014, replacing part of the library’s roof and repairing a collapsed sewer line under North Front Street, had reduced the reserves from about $324,000 to about $275,000, about $75,000 of which is restricted to use for the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection and for children’s programming.
Those two large emergency expenditures, he said, “made us much more aware that we have to have an adequate reserve in the bank to deal with unforeseen expenses.” He pointed out that, unlike a special district library, an association library cannot issue a bond referendum in case of a financial emergency or major capital project.
At the town board meeting, Heyl de Ortiz contested Barry’s allegations that Elting was not in compliance with the regulations under which it was established as an association library. “We are compliant with the ways we have to report to the New York State Education Department and the IRS,” he said, noting that the library’s detailed financial statements, the IRS Form 990s required of all not-for-profits, could be viewed online.
“You have to show the public why you need the increase,” insisted councilman Barry, pointing out that the “budget” posted on the Elting Memorial Library website for public scrutiny consists merely of a pie chart. Logan added that the most recent Form 990 available online is from 2013. “How are voters supposed to make a decision if you don’t share the budget with the public?” asked Barry. “I want a detailed line-by-line budget …. Why can’t you send me one?”
“We’re totally transparent,” responded library trustee Chris Watkins. “You’re welcome to come to our meeting and get one.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask for it,” said a visibly incensed Barry.
The councilman also cited regulations requiring association libraries to have publicly elected boards, contending that Elting’s board is chosen only by its members. “The website says in order to be a member, you have to pay an annual fee,” said Barry. Heyl de Ortiz called that an oversight, saying that the website merely needed updating to reflect an old bylaws change.
The day after the meeting, the pertinent section of the website was amended to read, “All residents of the Town of New Paltz (including the Village) who are of voting age are members of the association. No financial contribution is required to be a member.”
“Your function tonight is to accept the petition,” Heyl de Ortiz told the town board.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to pass judgment on whether a 17 percent increase is appropriate,” interjected councilman Marty Irwin. “I think it would be great to let the voters decide,” agreed councilman Dan Torres.
In the end, although Barry was not persuaded, the remaining members agreed to pass the petition on to the board of elections. Voters will decide on the $70,000 increase to the November ballot. Torres estimated that the impact, if passed, would amount to an increase of $90 to $100 in property taxes on a $300,000 home in New Paltz.