When the Limestone County Commission unanimously voted Sept. 16 to approve the budget for the current fiscal year, commissioners simultaneously approved appropriations to local groups and nonprofit organizations.
The appropriation that got the most attention was the $50,000 approved for the Athens-Limestone Public Library. The appropriation was $30,000 less than last year and $85,000 less than the $135,000 that was requested.
At the time, commissioners provided no specifics about why they decided to levy such a deep cut to the library. Prior to the commission's vote, library officials twice lobbied commissioners for the full amount — once at a July work session and again at the Sept. 11 work session.
At both meetings, District 2 Commissioner Steve Turner voiced concerns about how the library was funded and the library's number of employees.
After the commission voted to cut the library's funding, library supporters came to work sessions and regular meetings imploring commissioners to restore the library's funding. District 4 Commissioner Ben Harrison, who serves on the library's foundation board, told supporters he was not in favor of the cut.
Turner and District 3 Commissioner Jason Black said they've been accosted and chastised in public since the vote. Black said one of his mentors told him he should “be ashamed” of himself for cutting the library funding, while Turner said at least one member of the community said he would work to ensure Turner wasn't reelected in 2020.
Having heard enough of the criticism, Black and Turner recently said the reason they voted to cut the library was what they described as financial irregularities and questionable bookkeeping practices. They were also concerned by the lack of a current audit, even though library officials say they are not required to have an annual audit.
“I was for giving zero dollars this year, but it was agreed on by all four commissioners we would do $50,000,” Black said.
Black said the library had not had a full audit since 2015, but Library Director Paula Laurita said the latest audit is from 2016. She explained the 2017 and 2018 audits had not been completed because of turnover at the accounting firm used by the library.
She said the library has an annual audit, though the state only requires an audit to be conducted every five years.
Questions about employees and hours
Information provided by the library to the commission show the facility has 18 employees. Black questioned the need for that many employees, considering what he described as the library's limited hours. The facility is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and is closed Sunday.
He said members of the community fear the commission's funding cut could result in a reduction in hours at the library, but he described the current hours as not accommodating for children.
Laurita said a poll was conducted by the library in 2014, and the public indicated the current schedule was preferred by the community. She added the library is open 47 hours per week, but is required by the state to be open 45 hours.
A statement from the library said “thousands of children” use the library each year, and more than 2,300 enjoyed more than 30 summer programs this year, including an award-winning program for autistic children.
“The library has developed innovative programs to ensure that every student has access to its digital resources,” the statement said. “Creating the eAccess card, issued through schools, students can check out eBooks, use databases for research and more. The eAccess card has been offered to all schools in Limestone County.”
In addressing concerns about the number of employees, Laurita said the library has 17 employees, eight of whom are full-time. The library also has nine part-time employees, two of whom are janitors.
“Due to the budget cuts, a full-time staff member leaving the library will be replaced with a part-time employee, reducing the number of trained staff available to assist the public,” she said.
Questions about expenses
Turner said his concern stemmed from looking through the library's financial records. He said there were credit card statements with no receipts detailing what precisely was purchased with the credit card.
A statement Turner provided to The News Courier showed two purchases at Walmart totaling $276.70 made using the library's Capital One Business card, which is in Library Director Paula Laurita's name. Handwritten notes next to the Walmart transactions say “program,” but Turner said that's not detailed enough for him.
Laurita said at the time Turner was provided access to the purchase information, the purchase orders and receipts were attached. An invoice provided by Laurita to The News Courier for the purchases show some of the supplies were janitorial, while others support the library's adult and youth adult programs.
“These details were listed on the purchase orders shown to Commissioner Turner,” she said.
Turner said Laurita had also made personal purchases using the card, and he added Laurita told him she had paid the money back. As of Tuesday, Nov. 26, Turner said the money had not been paid back.
“Paula claimed she paid it back with cash, but there's no receipt,” he said. “No check was written to anybody. There would have been no problem for anyone to write a personal check, or if you're going to use cash, get someone to give you a receipt. That's not available, and that right there is a huge red flag to me.”
A statement from the library said Laurita accidentally used the library credit card at a hotel in Boston. When she discovered the error, she requested the hotel change the charge to a personal card, but the transaction had already gone through. When she returned to the library, the statement said Laurita immediately reported the error to the assistant director.
When the bill came, the statement said Laurita wrote “Mistake-reimbursed,” as a means to draw attention to it and not cover it up. The statement said Laurita reimbursed the library by purchasing supplies needed for programs.
“Yes, I should have written out a check to have a paper trail. Since I was the one who reported my slip-up and made restitution, I felt the issue was resolved,” she said. “Looking around the library, I see the donor plaques where my family has donated thousands of dollars and pledged thousands more in our wills. Why would I harm the library for $200?”
Black said if a county commissioner turns in travel receipts for reimbursement, they are required to show down to the penny how money was spent. He added both the library and commission are funded with public money, but the same standard used at the commission is not the standard at the library.
Laurita said Black's comparison would not be equal in this situation, adding she's not familiar with the commission's policies and procedures and that Black wouldn't be familiar with the library's procedures.
“I am not aware of Mr. Black ever visiting the library to request information,” she said. “The last comment I made to the commissioners at the budget hearing was to call me with any questions. No one called or visited the library prior to finalizing the budget.”
Laurita added the library's board of trustees is the governing body of the library, but said no member of the commission had ever attended a meeting.
How it's funded
The commission's annual appropriation is just a drop in the bucket compared to how much money the library receives annually. It draws from the Southard Trust, a $1 million gift bequeathed to the library from former Athens resident Shelby Southard.
During a September work session, Frank McCollum, treasurer of the library's foundation board, explained the trust is invested in three different ways but told Turner it is “a substantial amount of money.”
“The intent has been to never draw from the principal, but we do draw from it,” McCollum said.
Laurita said historically, the Southard Trust has been used to cover funding gaps, but the intention of the board is to use only the interest and save the principal for emergencies. She added $1 million from the trust was used in the construction of the new library.
A bank ledger dated Aug. 31 provided to The News Courier by Turner and Black show the library has nearly $2.6 million in total cash and investments in the bank, with the Southard Trust comprising nearly $1.9 million. The documents show the library has total assets of $3.1 million, which includes furnishing and equipment.
The library's total operating revenues for 2019 were $580,082.43, though its total expenses were $639,148.68. The library's greatest expenses were salaries, which were $444,430.55. The library is also paying on a $480,000 line of credit related to the renovation to turn the former Kroger building on South Jefferson Street into the state-of-the-art public library.
Its 2019 revenues are as follows:
• City of Athens: $130,000;
• Limestone County Commission: $80,000;
• TVA in lieu of tax: $60,000;
• State of Alabama: $117,764;
• Fines: $4,798.95;
• Copies: $5,580.74;
• Contributions: $12,310.91;
• Memorial donations: $200;
• Room rentals: $24,045.94;
• General sales: $5,690.35;
• Vending income: $407.21;
• Grants: $16,284.33; and
• Southard funds: $123,000.
In October 2014, the library's then-accountant, Sandy Lynn McNeal, was arrested on first-degree theft charges after audits revealed she was making personal credit card purchases at Walmart, Dollar General and Amazon. In another situation, she wrote checks to herself from the library's account.
Among the alleged irregularities:
• McNeal allegedly double paid herself more than once;
• The library’s billing software showed a check written to Amazon but bank records allegedly showed the check was made out to McNeal;
• McNeal allegedly used a library credit card to pay Calhoun Community College for classes the library agreed to pay for, then wrote herself a check in the same amount.
McNeal pleaded guilty to the theft charge in August 2015 and received a 20-year split sentence. She was also ordered to pay $41,112 to cover the cost of the money she stole, plus the costs associated with identifying the thefts.
Laurita said when the misuse of funds was revealed, it was immediately reported to the Athens Police Department by her and the board of trustees. Library officials then ordered a forensic audit.
“The Athens-Limestone Public Library encouraged and cooperated with the complete investigation,” she said.
Both Turner and Black said they want to see the library succeed, if for no other reason than looking out for its investment. The commission and Athens City Council voted in early 2011 to provide $1.1 million each to the library project. The money was used to buy the former Kroger building.
“We've got (new industries) coming in and these people want to know about the library,” Black said. “The last thing they want to hear is their money is not being spent appropriately.”