April 22, 2011 at 1:00 am

Critics: $2.3M Detroit library project a symbol of waste amid budget crisis

The South Wing project began with a $300,000 proposal to replace furniture, but in early 2009 the commission voted for an expanded renovation. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Detroit —Detroit Public Library officials say finances have grown so bad they could close most neighborhood branches, but in a few weeks plan to unveil a revamped wing of a main library that even administrators say spares few expenses.

The South Wing is stocked with 20 yellow and orange European lounge chairs that cost $1,092 apiece, artistic pendant light fixtures and two alcohol-burning fireplaces. The project morphed from a $300,000 furniture update to a $2.3 million overhaul with new floors, study rooms, lighting and built-in, wood-framed book shelves.

"$1,100 per chair is reckless spending for a public institution," said Todd Kelly, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1259, which represents 125 workers, including clerks, janitors and security staffers.

"It would be easier to swallow the current situation if we didn't see things like that."

It's not the only spending to come under question as the system considers closing up to 18 of 23 branches and laying off as many as 191 of 333 workers. A Detroit News review showed that, since 2008, the library has paid at least $160,000 to food vendors, including $1,760 at an ice-cream shop, and spent $1 million on 6 percent raises to union workers at a time counterparts in City Hall took 10 percent pay cuts.

Executive Director Jo Anne Mondowney agreed the South Wing renovation was costly and that too much has been spent on food. But she said she's only been on the job for about 19 months and isn't responsible for much of the spending.

Construction was approved by the library board the same month she started the job, but commission minutes show that the $624,000 contract for furniture and shelving was approved under her watch in May 2010. Mondowney said she didn't know who approved the chairs, which will be used by patrons, and that her staff tried unsuccessfully to return them.

"We are looking carefully and monitoring all of our expenses and revenues," said Mondowney, who also said she's cut down on food spending.

"There were some things we couldn't undo. The tiger was out of the house. I have focused staff to become much more mindful of our spending."

Union leaders argue the $2.3 million, which came from operational funds, could have helped reduce an $11 million shortfall.

But Edward Thomas, chairman of the library commission, said the South Wing spending has no connection to the library's current financial crisis. 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.

"Our monthly payroll is $2 million," Thomas said. "When you have a situation like this, people are looking for someone to blame. I just think some things are being made more of than they are. The root cause is really the decline in property taxes."

Commissioner Anthony Adams said the board must "learn from its past mistakes."

"You really can't justify $1,100 chairs," said Adams, who joined the board this year and has investigated the South Wing spending.

"I don't think there was any ill will, but it just doesn't look right in the current climate."

Wing was 'dilapidated'

Library Deputy Director Juliet Machie defended the renovation, saying it was a badly needed update that administrators and commissioners approved in 2008 when the system had a rainy day fund of nearly $35 million. The fund is at $17 million now, some of which will be tapped for the projected shortfall.

The 44,000-square-foot, two-story wing hasn't had new furniture since it was built in 1965 and was "dilapidated and dreary," said Machie, who helped lead the project under former Director Nancy Skowronski. Machie also was interim director for three months in the summer of 2009, before Mondowney came on in September 2009.

"It was pretty beat up," Machie said. "The staff had been asking, 'Can we do something?'"

Machie said the initial price of $300,000 was an estimate and commissioners knew it would increase. In January 2009, commissioners approved spending $1.5 million on the project. The commissioners are appointed by the Detroit Board of Education.

Skowronski, who retired, didn't return a call for comment.

Machie said officials argued about the value of the two fireplaces — which cost $5,021 apiece — but she said staff pushed for them because they had seen them in suburban libraries. The 24 pendant light fixtures hanging above computers cost $531 each.

Machie said she wouldn't have approved the chairs because they can be easily damaged. She said she has had to remove new leather chairs from the Skillman branch downtown and replace them with wooden ones after homeless people defecated on them.

Thomas said the Allermuir-brand chairs would not have been his choice, but "the public is entitled to have a comfortable place to come and read."

Food spending examined

The library's food tab also faces questions.

Spending with food vendors totaled $55,800 in 2008, $61,400 in 2009 and $40,600 in 2010, according to a Detroit News review of the library's checks. Some of the most frequent caterers were downtown's Lunchtime Global, Genet Your Everyday Gourmet and La Azteca Ice Cream in southwest Detroit.

Mondowney said most food was provided for the public at events but some was just for staff.

"I saw it as something we need to be mindful of," Mondowney said. "Food service is not a necessary part of doing business."

But records show about $5,400 has been spent on food vendors so far in January and February of this year.

Adams said food expenses have to be cut.

"You can't justify spending money on food when you are closing branches," Adams said.

Project a shadow over talks

Library leaders are meeting with union employees now to try to get them to accept concessions to trim their shortfall.

But Adams said concerns over the South Wing spending are dominating the discussion. Union representatives also have criticized a failed fundraising effort. The News first reported in February that the library set aside $200,000 in taxpayer money two years ago to launch a $20-million fundraising campaign for construction projects. But less than $100 was raised.

Kelly, with AFSCME Local 1259, said the union was surprised when library leaders proposed their 6 percent raise.

"We would have settled for 2 percent when we saw what the city was dealing with," Kelly said.

Michael Wells, president of UAW Local 2200, representing about 120 library staffers, said the raise is justified but will be difficult to give up because some members believe library administrators were more concerned about keeping up with plush suburban facilities than being fiscally responsible.

"What we need to do is live within our budget," said Wells. "We look to them for leadership and what do we get in return?"

cmacdonald@detnews.com

(313) 222-2396

Two fireplaces in main branch cost $5,021 apiece. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
The pendant light fixtures cost $531 each. (David Coates / The Detroit News)