Why Did Washington Sue the Romeo District Library?
What was the basis for the lawsuit?
Washington’s board required that the Romeo District Library (RDL) board request our approval for its budget. The RDL has refused. The demand was made because
a) the library has been financially mismanaged against the best interests of taxpayers and therefore requires oversight
b) the governing documents of the library (the local ordinances under which they were formed) actually require them to submit their budgets for approval to the boards of Washington, Bruce and Romeo prior to spending money.
Is the library mismanaged?
Library mismanagement over the years warrants oversight. At the time of the suit, we reviewed statistics available on the State Library website and other sources:
- At 1.2 mils, you spend twice as much as you do for Township General Fund taxes (0.62 mils in Washington).
- RDL was in the highest (worst) quartile compared to 388 other state libraries in terms of cost per customer
- RDL had the 6th highest millage rate of the 44 libraries in its class.
- RDL historically paid directors in the highest 25% of libraries despite poor performance.
- RDL historically was overstaffed, being in the highest 25% in its class for staff per customer (29 library staff vs 14 police deputies).
- RDL costs more than Chesterfield, Sterling, St Clair Shores and Shelby libraries (much larger areas).
- Employee costs as a percentage of total costs were 44th highest of 388 libraries Statewide.
- Despite this spending, RDL was in the lowest (worst) 25% in terms of book spend and books per customer.
- Transparency was absent as Washington had to force the RDL to accept taping and airing of their meetings. Also, there have been efforts by RDL board members to place gag orders on other board members and on employees to prevent them from speaking with each other and with the township board members.
- THE RDL has run through many directors in the last 12 years.
How is the library governed?
The RDL is governed by a 6 member appointed body (2 appointed from each of Romeo, Bruce and Washington). Note that even though Washington residents put in over 2/3 of the funds they only get 1/3 of the vote (taxation without proper representation).
Isn’t the library board accountable to the people?
No. Unlike elected officials who can be recalled, the people cannot fire library board members for poor performance. They can only be removed by action from the Governor under a ludicrous State law.
What factors cause the library to be mismanaged?
The mismanagement of the library is a structural problem caused by the following:
- Because Washington gets to appoint only 1/3 of the board members while putting up over 2/3 of the money, there is little incentive for representatives of Bruce and Romeo to properly manage taxpayer dollars – after all, they are spending mostly Washington Township’s money.
- Library board members are appointed, not elected. They have no accountability to the taxpayer. Once appointed to their 4 year terms by their respective town boards, NO ONE can remove them except the Governor of Michigan under a ludicrous State law. Therefore, they have no accountability to the people.
- The library millage is perpetual. It was voted in decades ago when technology and our community’s taxable value were very different. It never goes up for renewal. Even the Police and Fire millages are revisited by taxpayers every 5 years - why isn’t the library millage re-evaluated periodically!
Why are perpetual millages bad?
An analysis of financial information at the State library website indicates that libraries with perpetual millages cost on average 46% more than others because the public doesn’t get to hold anyone accountable by reconsidering the millage periodically. This causes inefficient spending.
Perpetual millages rob voters of the power to reallocate dollars based on changing tax base, changing priorities, unforeseen circumstances and technology advancements (such as the impact of the internet on the library mission). Washington’s tax base has grown dramatically, causing the library funding to grow beyond what is necessary to accomplish the mission. Those dollars should be returned or reallocated, not spent.
Perpetual millages cause library boards to start to look for ways to spend money as their town’s taxable value growth outpaces their legitimate mission. It causes mission creep into park and recreation and other activities which are already separately paid for by taxpayers.
Voters need to change this. Even police, fire and ambulance millages come up for renewal periodically!
Isn’t it cumbersome to have the three boards involved in approving the budget?
No. It was deliberately set up that way originally because NON elected appointees were in charge of spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Prior to them spending it, they are required to getting the annual budget approved by the 3 elected boards of the 3 towns. After that, they can spend within that budget.
This approach forces the communities to work together. It also gives some protection to towns that may find themselves in the minority in fighting irresponsible spending.
Note that this is exactly how other joint ventures between the communities were governed – the previously existing Tri Community Cable Commission (an appointed board) had to get its budget approved by all three boards prior to spending any money. Park and Rec and STAR Transportation work similarly. This validates that this is the intent behind the library ordinances.
Unfortunately, the Courts bowed to State law that they felt overruled the very local laws under which the library was founded and decided that elected officials have no say in stopping the waste of taxpayer dollars.
Doesn’t State law say that libraries are independent from local governments?
District libraries are governed by State law. What State law actually says is that when district libraries are formed they must have formation documents that clearly outline how they are governed. Those are different from one district library to another. The kinds of things that are typically defined include:
- How many board members are there?
- Are they elected or appointed?
- What are the length of their terms?
- How many board members come from each town?
- How are disputes resolved?
- What are the rights of the towns vs the library board vs the director of the library?
Our district library was formed by each of the three towns issuing identical local ordinances that described these kinds of items. Those ordinances are basically the “formation documents” that State law requires. Those ordinances REQUIRE that budgets be approved by all three towns elected boards prior to the library board having the authority to SPEND that money since the library board is APPOINTED and therefore not accountable to taxpayers. Therefore our local ordinances that require local government budget approval are not CONTRARY to State law. They FULFILL State law.
Once the budgets are approved the library board would have full authority to spend within those budgets. A similar approach is taken in townships – a township supervisor has the authority to spend within the budget limits once the township board approves the budget.
Does it make sense that the ordinances were passed to form the library and then became immediately void the very next day as the library board and courts seems to believe? Does it make sense that only the provision of these laws that the library board favors continue to be honored but the budget review requirement is ignored? After all, they rely on those very local ordinances to conclude that Washington only gets 2 of 6 board members while putting up over 2/3 of the funds. They rely on those local ordinances to conclude that the board is appointed not elected. Yet they reject those local ordinances in the one item they don’t like – the requirement that the elected boards approve their budget before the unelected library board has the authority to spend it. Does that sound rational to anyone or does it sound hypocritical and self-serving?
All of that logic aside, the courts have now concluded that the ordinance that formed our library essentially was invalidated by State law the moment that laws were put into place, eliminating any need for the library to come to us with their budget. As of today, a 6 member library board, which is unelected and therefore does not answer to the people, also thumbs its nose at the 3 town boards that appointed them. So they are accountable to no one. And the results show it!
If you had succeed, what stops you from taking the schools next?
Note that the three communities do NOT approve the Romeo School Board budget because that board is separately elected, not appointed. There is already accountability to the people and therefore no need for separate elected board to approve their spending. Further, the members are elected at large from the three towns, meaning Washington’s contribution of the majority of the money can at least be rewarded by having a greater percentage of vote for the board members.
Why didn’t Romeo and Bruce join in the suit?
Library funding can be a very political issue. Most boards make decisions based on politics and avoid anything controversial even if it is the right thing to do. Washington’s board takes pride in that we take our responsibilities seriously and run our operations like a business. We do not allow politics to enter in. We are here to protect the taxpayers’ interests and that is what we do.
Also, consider that Romeo and Bruce get the benefit of subsidization – they pay less than 1/3 of the cost when they COMBINE their contributions yet they get to control decision making with 2/3 of the vote. They are making decisions with someone else’s money. Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg for them?
Who voted for the suit?
The lawsuit was filed after 2 years of our board repeatedly requesting that the RDL library board act responsibly and submit their budget to us for approval. We attempted to persuade them to do the right thing only to be repeatedly ignored.
The lawsuit and the appeal were voted on unanimously by every member of the Washington Township board.
Why was it rejected?
The issue is complex. This lawsuit broke new ground. Essentially the court concluded that the local law that ESTABLISHED the library and called for the three town boards to approve the annual budget became immediately invalidated by State law, the moment the library formed (a logical oddity), leaving taxpayers completely unprotected against a non-accountable board.
Aren’t we just wasting taxpayer money on lawyers?
Legal fees are the unfortunate result of the RDL library board picking and choosing which part of the law that formed them they will honor. Note however, that the small amount we are spending on this suit pales in comparison to the potential annual savings (repeating every year) of operating this library at more appropriate cost levels. The thousands spent today could have saved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer money EACH YEAR.
Finally, note that Washington has been very judicious in its legal spend. The library, playing with mostly Washington money, has spent many multiples of what Washington has on this effort. It is another proof of their irresponsibility.
Note that exiting the joint venture is not unprecedented as Bruce and Romeo recently pulled out of our cable studio arrangement. There are clearly differences in the philosophies under which our three towns approach the protection of taxpayer interests.
While the failure to achieve the results we hoped for in litigation was a dissappointment, we feel our action has been taken with the proper motives – to protect taxpayer interests. Meanwhile RDL was spending YOUR money to fight for the right to spend money without being accountable to YOU. How does that feel?
No one likes controversy, but we have to take a stand to live up to our obligation to protect taxpayer interests. Whether you agree or disagree with our decisions, we hope you respect our motive.