By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
NOTE: This is the second article in our series devoted to our exclusive sit-down interview with New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday that the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is in line for a top-to-bottom audit, and a “broad range of fiscal issues” will be examined.
The audit plan was triggered by allegations of unchecked spending at the Queens Borough Public Library, Stringer said. According to the New York Daily News, Thomas Galante, president of the Queens system, spent $140,000 last year to renovate his office, including $27,000 for a rooftop deck where he “grabs a smoke.” This comes on top of a salary of almost $400,000, and other perks.
“Obviously, we read the same allegations everyone else did, and decided to start with the Queens system,” Stringer said during a roundtable discussion at the Park Plaza Diner in Brooklyn Heights.
“We then said, in all fairness, let’s do all three library systems,” which includes Queens, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and the New York Public Library (which serves Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island.)
Stringer said that the audits will include a close examination of the funding of capital improvements, spending practices, executive pay and compensation, and the oversight role of the library systems’ boards of trustees.
Groups opposing the controversial sales of Brooklyn and Manhattan library branches to developers have long been pushing for an audit of the BPL and NYPL systems.
Almost a year ago, Citizens Defending Libraries, a group fighting BPL’s plan to sell the Brooklyn Heights Branch, asked then-Comptroller Liu to examine the system’s books. While Liu was sympathetic, that audit never developed.
“Some of the things raised with respect to the Queens library system are interesting and worth investigating but the Queens expenditures ($140K for a conference deck) are penny ante compared to the library sales at the NYPL and the BPL,” commented Michael D. D. White, a founding member of Citizens Defending Library, following a Brian Lehrer interview with Comptroller Stringer. “The Queens Library system has not been selling off libraries like the other two,” White added.
The Brooklyn Public Library, underfunded for years, says it has amassed almost $300 millions worth of deferred repairs. Money from the sale of the Heights site could fund a significant chunk of those repairs, BPL says.
But opponents say the answer is not selling libraries, but supporting and maintaining them.
“We always said we should do more funding for libraries,” Stringer told the Eagle. “We want to make sure the public knows we are scrutinizing the funding of these libraries.” The Comptroller’s office has sent an “engagement letter” to the Queens library, but has not yet sent one to BPL.
“Basically, an engagement letter says we’re going to audit you, it starts the process.” Each audit takes many months, he said.
BPL plans to rebuild a smaller Heights branch in a condo at the base of a residential tower, and has already unveiled seven responses to an RFP (Request for Proposals). The library's plans may have hit a speed bump, however, with the new administration. Mayor Bill de Blasio, while still Public Advocate, and the current Public Advocate, Letitia James have called for a moratorium on the sale of public libraries until reviews can be completed.
On Thursday, Stringer said that while he could not speak specifically about the Brooklyn Heights Branch development plans, “We’ll look at every aspect of finances, including capital projects, that I can assure you.”
“In Brooklyn, we’re going to look at the financials, funding streams, and the role of the board, to make sure the board is meeting its fiduciary responsibility. We’ll look at compensation packages, we’ll look at the services, deal with technology, books, and programmatic money.
“We’ll apply best practices to the system and see if they hit those metrics,” he added. “Then we’ll report those findings, with the goal of strengthening our library systems.”
It could take a year for BPL’s audit, Stringer said.
BPL says it expects to enter into a contract with a development partner for the Heights Branch sometime in 2014.