Providence libraries in limbo forces Fox, Taveras to intervene

June 6th, 2011 at 7:00 am by under Nesi's Notes

A few years back, a group of unhappy Providence library patrons launched an advocacy campaign called “Not About the Buildings.” Today, though, the future of the city’s library system is all about the buildings – and who owns them.

That’s the question at the heart of the fight between two similarly named nonprofits: Providence Public Library (PPL), which used to run the nine branch libraries and still runs the Central Branch on Empire Street, and Providence Community Library (PCL), the newly formed organization which took over the branches in 2009.

PPL says it owns seven of the branch buildings, so PCL should pay to rent them. PCL says the buildings were paid for by patrons and taxpayers who shouldn’t have to pay rent to continue to use them as branches, particularly since PPL voted to close five of them in 2008 – the threat that led to PCL’s creation.

WPRI.com has now learned this latest civic crisis in the capital city is drawing the attention of some of Rhode Island’s most powerful politicians, including House Speaker Gordon Fox and Mayor Angel Taveras, as well as City Council President Michael Solomon.

“I am highly supportive of the community library branches in Providence, including the Rochambeau Branch that my constituents have heavily utilized for decades,” Fox said last week. “I have spoken with Council President Solomon and I share his concerns. I am exploring all avenues to see if the state can play a role in resolving this troubling situation.”

That’s no small threat, since the General Assembly provided PPL with $1.6 million in 2009-10, or 36 percent of its $4.5 million budget. Solomon told WPRI.com he thinks lawmakers’ involvement could break the impasse between the two library groups. “With the help of the General Assembly, I think we may be able to resolve this,” he said.

Unlike some cities, Providence’s city government does not actually own and run its public library system. From 1878 to 2009, that job was handled by PPL, a private nonprofit, with taxpayer subsidies. But after years of rancor over PPL leaders’ threats to close branches, the Cicilline administration shifted their management – and the $3.6 million annual city appropriation that helps pay for them – to PCL.

However, the status of the actual branch buildings still hasn’t been resolved. PPL holds the title to seven of them, and has declined to transfer ownership to the city. The current lease agreement will expire July 1, and it’s unclear what will happen to the branches after that.

A source familiar with the negotiations told WPRI.com that PPL is seeking around $700,000 in annual rent or a one-time payout of $11 million for the seven buildings.

PPL spokeswoman Tonia Mason denied that her group has asked for a one-time payout in exchange for the branches, but said it does want to receive “some rent compensation” for their use, much as the city pays to rent part of the Boys & Girls Club building for the Fox Point branch. “However, a number of flexible options have been proposed,” she added.

But paying to buy or rent the branches is a nonstarter for PCL Chairman Marcus Mitchell, who said his organization and the city cannot afford to do so and shouldn’t have to anyway because taxpayers “already paid for them” back when the buildings were built. Solomon said the same thing.

“I’m not frustrated – I’m angry,” Mitchell said of the negotiations. Because PCL does not actually own the buildings, it’s missed out on foundation funding and other grants that could be used to make badly needed repairs at them, he said. A lawsuit the city filed last fall against PPL over that issue is still pending.

Taveras spokeswoman Melissa Withers said the mayor is monitoring the situation closely. Gonzalo Cuervo, his deputy chief of staff, is taking a lead role in the negotiations and the library issue comes up weekly in senior leadership meetings, she said.

“The mayor is 100% committed to helping these two groups work it out for the benefit of the people of Providence,” Withers said. “We take it very seriously.”

What happens if there’s no agreement on July 1? Mason said PPL “can no longer afford to subsidize the branch system” but has not “considered any action if the issue isn’t resolved by then.” PCL sent layoff notices last month to all 65 of its employees in case the branches are no longer available.

“This is a tough time for the city,” Withers said. “The last thing we need is to have libraries shut down. It would be a tragedy for the neighborhoods. It’s not what anyone wants.”

Taveras and Solomon expressed strong support for PCL and its stewardship of the neighborhood branches. Mitchell said his new group is “in the black” and has managed to keep all nine branches open on an annual budget of under $5 million, significantly less than PPL said it needed to do the job. “I think a lot of Fortune 500 companies would be envious of the job we’ve done,” he said.

Though officials said it’s not a sticking point in the current negotiations, another outstanding issue between the two sides is PPL’s eight-figure endowment. The fund was valued at about $27 million in June 2009, according to IRS records, and some PCL supporters argue a portion of that money should be transferred to the new organization, as well.

(photos: Providence Community Library)

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32 Responses to “Providence libraries in limbo forces Fox, Taveras to intervene”

  1. [...] → Providence libraries in limbo forces Fox, Taveras to intervene [...]

  2. JohnDewey says:

    5 million? I like to see the bank account statement. The inclusion of in kind donations and promised donation doesn’t sit well with me, as i suspect many accountants. I still am waiting to see an actual accountancy report/audit from the PCL. They haven’t been very transparent.

    1. Bob says:

      I have a PPL question – to help me gain a clearer picture on this, the director of the PPL made a 6 digit salary for being the director of 9 branches and the main library downtown. The PPL proposed to transfer management of the 9 branches to the City due to whatever the reasons (irrelevant but lack of operating $). The City gives PCL a chance to do what the PPL said they couldn’t do. The PCL has done it and continues to do it and the Director – who now is the Director of….1 BRANCH?!…..still makes her 6 figure salary(?) What is wrong with this picture?

      Let’s not forget the Neil Steinberg’s independent report (now President of the RI Foundation) that outlined, among other things, fiscal mismanagement from the PPL and a lack of trust from its patrons. I believe at the time there was little or no public representation on the board as well as a suggestion that the PPL radically transform their leadership structure. So, while the PPL will tell you there is now public representation on the board, the Director still makes more than the Mayor for “directing” her single branch.

      1. John Dewey says:

        Good question Bob. it should be questioned. As long as you mentioned the Steinberg report; it also said the PPL was right in stating they couldn’t runt he branches with the amount the city provided, you left that out. I also know the expert the PCL brought in the give her opinion on operating the system said it couldn’t be done; that was brushed aside. i still want to see a balance sheet, Income statement and Statement of cash flows from Schwartz, so should you.

      2. Bob says:

        John Dewey – nice alias, by the way – the 990 is available. Have you not looked at it?

  3. Cilla says:

    “Taveras and Fox to intervene?” Please! Taveras met with PPL representatives last week – why not ask him what the outcome was? The city has stalled this process. It’s a simple fix, pay rent to the owners of the buildings like all other businesses. If the taxpayers have paid for these buildings, then all of us own alot of property in the state. Heck, I may even move into my neighbor’s house, afterall, I’m a taxpayer and I paid for it to be built.

    PCL needs to state the facts not lies: 1. THEY HAVE NO MONEY TO RUN THE BRANCHES, THEIR SCAPEGOAT IS PPL WHO CAN NOW SIT BACK AND SAY “I TOLD YOU SO.” 2. THEY HAVE NO BUDGET DRAWN UP – SO MUCH FOR TRANSPARENCY. 3. THE BUILDINGS ARE NOT FALLING APART – THEIR FACILITIES MANAGER AGREES. 4. NO GRANT MONEY WILL HELP WITH THEIR PAYROLL – THEY RUN CHECK TO CHECK FROM THE CITY, THERE IS NO EXTRA MONEY. 5. MARCUS MITCHELL HAS HIS HEAD IN THE CLOUDS IF HE THINKS ANYONE BELIEVES THEY ARE “IN THE BLACK.” WHERE ARE THOSE IMAGINARY BOOKS? 6. PPL WAS NEVER GOING TO CLOSE ALL THE BRANCHES, THE PLAN WAS TO KEEP FIVE OPEN – THE CITY REJECTED THAT PLAN.

    These politicians get involved when it looks good for them.

    1. Bob says:

      Oh – and Cilla – on point 6 above:

      6. PPL WAS NEVER GOING TO CLOSE ALL THE BRANCHES, THE PLAN WAS TO KEEP FIVE OPEN – THE CITY REJECTED THAT PLAN.

      These are the same branches that have remained open for the last few years since PCL took them over, correct?

  4. These other comments are obviously from PPL supporters and I suspect, if they would publish their actual names, would be identified as board members or paid media consultants. I am a PCL Board member and we have had an independent audit of our books, which is a matter of record, and we have managed the community library system in the black for the past two years while deepening our connection to the neighborhoods we serve and increasing programming. We proudly stand behind our record of accomplishments.

    I have served on the Facilities Committee for two years and can state without equivocation that the needed repairs to most of these buildings far surpasses their market value and were it not for the dedication and hard work of our maintenance staff, a few may indeed have fallen apart. We have significant roof damage in two particular buildings that threatens their continuing viability. We have asked the PPL to be good landlords and address these concerns, but they have not done so. In fact, in two years, I do not know of any work the PPL has done to any of the buildings they claim to own.

    The arguments by the PPL are good rhetoric, but do not stand up to scrutiny. Citizens are justified in their outrage about this issue, and politicians are responding. The PPL is wrong on this issue and its support is virtually non-existent. The PPL can continue to dig in and further alienate itself from the community it is mandated to serve by its mission, or can come to the table in the a spirit of true compromise and understanding. Where is the Board leadership on this? I invite any PPL board member to coffee to discuss this in a civil, thoughtful manner. If we can’t figure our how to keep our libraries open to the most needy in our community, shame on us all.

  5. Cilla says:

    If I was a PPL Board member, I would have voted to throw you out for non-payment of rent a long time ago. It’s funny how any supporters of PPL are always labled as board members or consultants. Maybe some of the taxpayers are tired of hearing the same old story from PCL.

    The PPL has come to the table to solve the problem – the City and the PCL don’t like the solutions so they automatically cry foul by the PPL.

    Mr. Calderone, how about an approved PCL budget for fiscal year 2012 at your next Board meeting?

    1. I would love to meet you “Cilla” and have a conversation about this. Please come and introduce yourself to me at the next meeting, which is Monday, June 13 at South Providence Library at 6:00.

      1. Cilla says:

        I don’t need to meet you – just wondering about your operating budget. If it’s available at the next meeting, I’ll pick up a copy. No need for quotes around my name, just because it’s only my first name, doesn’t mean I don’t exist.

        You seem to be ready to meet with everyone and solve the issues – maybe you can talk to Mayor Taveras and he can let you sit in on his next meeting with PPL. It seems the Mayor could take a couple of lessons from you; maybe it was the coffee that was missing from the negotiations.

    2. Bob says:

      Celia – do you have a connection with the PPL?

      1. Cilla says:

        Bob – do you have a connection with PCL? Notice the correct spelling of your name.

        I guess my connection with libraries – unlike you – is that I read.

      2. Bob says:

        You’re right, Cilla – I can’t read. Good to see you avoiding the issue….

  6. [...] > The clock is ticking for Providence’s library branches, so politicians are stepping in [...]

  7. Gutless Wonder says:

    yea, why would these people want to meet you in real life when they can just continue to sit behind their computers anonymously taking pot shots at you and your org?

    1. Cilla says:

      Hmmm, “gutless wonder” I guess that’s a proper name for taking pot shots.

      1. Bob says:

        By the way, Cilla, as a reader, you no doubt must be well versed on the whole library issue. If you are and you’re supporting the PPL position, then you are obviously ignorant of the situation and cannot possibly understand what has happened is it at stake here. I would be more than happy to catch you up to speed on the issue because, before long, your local reading room may not exist.

      2. Gutless Wondaaaahhhh says:

        yeah, wow, nothing gets by you! you’re a real sharp tack there!

  8. “Cilla Black,” you have used this on-line alias for seven years so far to resist change and undermine reform efforts both with the PPL and now with the PCL. My offer stands, and I could care less what you choose to drink.

    1. Cilla says:

      Mr. Calderone,

      You can think of my name as an alias if you wish.

      -Ms. Black

  9. Ellen Schwartz says:

    I am the treasurer of PCL. Our audit report is available to the public, as is our tax form 990. We ran in the black for the first year, and expect to for the second. It cost us a little over 4.3 million to run the nine libraries (not counting donated goods). We’re not rich, but then we did not start the year with over 27 million dollars in the bank, like PPL.
    The library buildings that PPL are refusing to turn over were paid for with city and state money and with donations from taxpayers. They don’t belong to PPL, they belong to the people of Providence to be used as libraries- Not sold to subsidize PPL’s bad managment.

    1. John Dewey says:

      I think your a disgrace. My friends say your a bad cpa. If your worth your certification post the current statements somewhere on-line. I want to see every penny.

      1. Bob says:

        John – first of all it’s “you’re” – not your. Secondly, 990 forms ARE public forms. You ask for a reply from Ms. Schwartz, she gives you one and instead of dealing with the reply, you attach her personally. I can show you 990 forms from both the PPL and PCL but it sounds like that really isn’t what you want to see. If you’re open minded and really care about the issue, you can get these yourself – if your mind is made and it’s not open to possibly being wrong, then this exchange is a waste of time.

      2. “John Dewey” Your comments about Ellen Schwartz are despicable and there is no room in civil discourse for these statements. Judging by your lack of command with the English language, I think you should spend a little more time in libraries and much less on the internet. I will not be engaging with you in any subsequent posts. You have lost your standing with me and I would trust with anyone interested in productive dialogue.

  10. Lanham Bundy says:

    While the debate over ownership and responsibility for the library buildings is critical to the future of our library branches, I hope that everyone involved in this debate and these negotiations will focus on what ought to be a shared outcome. This shared outcome is the delivery of the best possible library services to the citizens of Providence as well as all RI state residents.

    This is more important than ever as our unemployment rate remains near 11%, and our patrons are increasingly dependent on computer access, job search, and educational materials.

  11. [...] libraries in limbo forces Fox, Taveras to intervene WPRI – “A few years back, a group of unhappy Providence library patrons launched an advocacy [...]

  12. If the commenters supporting PPL are actually from PPL staffers or board members, *I* would counsel PPL to tell those people to stop posting things on the internet. They are not exactly covering themselves in glory.

  13. Mike says:

    PPL was given 27$ million to keep all the branches open, not just their main branch Cilla, you obviously work for PPL and are baiting this comment section with misleading commentary. have a bad day.

  14. Bob says:

    Here’s yesterday’s recorded show where Buddy Cianci had on his show Marcus Mitchell (President PPL) and Mark McKenney (a FORMER PPL board member and current PCL board member who was obviously aware of the unethical behavior of PPL): http://www.630wpro.com/FlashPlayer/default.asp?SPID=18073&ID=2206614.

    Buddy mentioned trying to get Dale Thompson (Director of PPL) on today’s show – it would be interesting to see if she shows up.

  15. Kate says:

    Let’s just be honest with ourselves.. this is all about the endowment.. not the buildings.

  16. [...] on July 1 when the lease agreement was set to expire. But as I reported Monday, the two sides are still far apart when it comes to the buildings’ future, and by all accounts the crucial sticking point is [...]