By Nathan Prewett
LEEDS – The issue of the Leeds Jane Culbreth Library‘s budget was raised again at a meeting of Leeds City Council on March 7, after Director Melanie Carden’s proposal to allocate funds to the library was rejected at an earlier meeting .
At the last meeting, Carden proposed that the council allocate funds not to exceed $200,000 to the library budget, which has been slashed during the pandemic. In her proposal, Carden said the funds would allow the library to resume certain services and compensate staff affected by the cut.
Councilwoman DeVoris Ragland-Pierce supported the proposal but was not supported, so the resolution did not pass. Other Council members cited the feasibility of the general budget allocation, monies owed from the Library Committee, and the staff’s current payroll as reasons for not passing the resolution.
Miller first said that the previous administration under former Mayor Eric Patterson formed a new, separate library committee with former council member Susan Carswell “literally overnight” and issued a $1 million check to the library.
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Miller said the money was taken before former councilman Johnny Kile subsequently sued in county court. According to Miller, the judge ruled that the money transfer was illegal and ordered the funds returned to the city, even saying that all recipients may face criminal liability.
“We didn’t take the million dollars out of the library,” Miller said. “The judge ordered it.”
He raised a second point: when former library director Mondretta Williams retired, the city’s board of directors said it had no authority to select a new librarian once the process had begun. Similarly, he said the board had told them they had no authority to set librarians’ salaries.
However, after research by a legal team, it was discovered that the library was a city department where librarians were city employees, Miller told the public. He then read out a list of salary rates for the librarians and their assistants, ranging from more than $68,000 to $35,000.
He also said that a review of financial records showed that the city had supported the library with an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 a year. According to Miller, a process has been initiated to determine budget cuts during the pandemic, during which he said the library was “significantly” overfunded compared to other city libraries.
On the next point, Miller said that Carden was offered help by providing volunteers, which she declined, allegedly stating that she would not accept volunteers while the library was understaffed and underfunded.
He then said that Carden and an assistant explained that if the requested funds were not allocated, the library would cut programs, which he said was “not so” since all programs are funded from the budget available to the director be asked.
“The director’s budget request specifically states that the requested $205,000 would be spent on staff expenses, not programming,” he read. “Nevertheless, it took action by cutting back on funded programs and falsely telling the public that the library could not offer those programs due to staff shortages and underfunding.”
He then claimed that Carden went over the 2021 staff budget by an estimated $60,000. During the finalization of the fiscal 2022 budget, it presented to the Treasury approximately $37,000 in unpaid and overdue bills, resulting in a $97,000 deficit.
Also, there was no funding for an employee who he says was hired without city approval. Closing points on his remarks included a 13 1/2% pay rise for employees and a $25,000 check from the board of education, which he says was not reported to the city as required by state law.
He concluded that there was a “misinformation campaign” regarding the city’s situation with the library “to force this city into a massive budget increase to cover the mismanagement of funds.”
He then explained that a meeting would be held to discuss the library’s practices and city policies, and that “all programs that have been funded and are now being funded are to be restored immediately.”
Carden asked if she could speak, but was refused by Miller, telling her that her comments would be heard elsewhere.
Miller’s comments were met with disapproval from several people who spoke out during public comments. The first came from Carswell, who addressed the actions of the Patterson administration, saying that over the course of two sessions they had voted to form a library building board and that the members had been “properly” voted on.
She then said they voted to authorize $1 million under the control of the building authority, with a clause requiring five days for the check to be cleared. But a city employee wired the money early, she said, giving Kile a loophole to file suit so the city could take back the money.
“It was very planned and orchestrated,” she said, adding that “none of the actions we took as a council were illegal. The erroneous action was transferring funds for the five-day waiting period.”
There was then an exchange between her and Miller, in which Carswell brought up the salaries of other city employees to the library staff. A second speaker was Amy Shorter, who said she makes $29,000 a year, contradicting a report that said she makes $40,000. She then said that the council had the wrong information about her payments.
Others spoke, including Tina McDonald, who questioned Miller about the budget process and believed there was a disconnect between what the city is budgeted for and what is being spent. She criticized the city’s handling of budget spending.
Carden declined to comment on the matter.
Meetings are held every first and third Monday of the month at City Hall on 1400 9th street northeast. Agenda packs can be viewed online on the City of Leeds website.