Supervisor, Fairview Trustees battle over library

By Pauline Liu
A simmering dispute between Town of Middletown Supervisor Marge Miller and the Board of Trustees of Margaretville’s Fairview Public Library broke into open hostility Thursday night, when Miller attended a meeting of the library’s trustees and accused them of mismanaging the library and of being willing to operate the facility with a deficit budget. Miller also defended herself against accusations by the trustees that she is withholding the town’s funding of the library.

Miller called on the trustees to balance the budget. “The payroll is higher than projected income,” she said. “You need to do a great job, so that this library is viable.” As she continued to speak, she wondered out loud, if the library will last.  “I say, holy crap, how are they going to be here five years from now?” she said. “Frankly, now, I’d rather be home having a drink, but I think libraries matter,” she added.

Following the meeting, in response to Miller’s concern that the library is operating at a deficit, Doris Warner, the library board’s vice president said, “We all (the board of trustees) recognize that the library will operate this fiscal year at a deficit but we also recognize that the library has $190,000 in operating funds on hand and an endowment of nearly $500,000. With an annual budget of less than $80,000 we have nearly three years of operating funds in hand. We’re not going out of business.”

Warner went on to say, “The trustees have decided to invest heavily this year in people skills to help make the library a more valuable asset to the community. We’re investing in the future. We’ll be able to raise more money in the future when the community thinks of us as a vital asset.” Warner further said that the library’s budget is cyclical and that in 2010 Fairview took in far more than it spent. “We plan to get back to that position soon,” she added.

Miller also demanded that the library trustees send her copies of their minutes after each meeting. She told the trustees that the town would appoint new trustees to fill the two remaining vacancies on the nine-member board.

“Here are the things that need changing,” said Miller. “ Things were not put in place for proper oversight of the library,” she complained. She described the hiring of the library’s new acting director as “questionable management.” She told the trustees that the library came under her “scrutiny,” in January after she and Warner had a conversation about the library during which Warner allegedly expressed a desire to impose a “library tax” to support the facility. Warner told the News that her recollection of that conversation was that she would like to see residents of the town have a chance to vote directly on the library’s budget rather than have it imposed as a line item in the town’s budget. “The public should have the right to vote up or down, just like it does with the fire department’s budget and just like libraries in Phoenicia and Delhi do with their budgets,” she said.

Miller has had a contentious relationship with the library that spans nearly a decade. She was first elected to the board of trustees in 2003 but left in 2004 when her attendance record at board meetings was criticized. She later said that her poor attendance was due to caring for aging parents and the fact that she was never properly informed as to when the meetings were being held. In 2005 and 2006 she applied for the position of Fairview’s library director but was twice rebuffed. In 2007 she penned a long letter to the News in which she threatened to sue the board and was particularly critical of board president Steve Tanzer whom she said was, “unfit to serve as a library board member and should go.” He did not.

At Thursday’s meeting Miller took issue with the trustees’ selection of a new acting library director. Miller complained that a person with a master’s degree applied for the job but had yet to be interviewed. The woman who was recently hired by the trustees as acting director has a master’s degree in library science. She also told the trustees, she realizes that her relationship with them has grown rocky. “What I’m getting is that I’m the enemy,” she said. “Suddenly, my phone calls and emails are not returned, I’m just saying.” 
 
The supervisor lost her temper when Library Board President Ingrid van der Leeden tried to respond to her criticism. “Excuse me,” said van der Leeden, in an attempt speak. “Excuse me!” shouted Miller. “I’m not finished! I’m not finished!  If I ask to be put on your agenda, put me on an agenda!” she screamed. Miller was apparently insulted that she wasn’t scheduled to speak earlier during the meeting. Instead, she had to wait until the end of the meeting, when the public is given a chance to speak.  

One subject that Miller did not elaborate on at the meeting, is why the town’s funding for the library has been delayed. According to van der Leeden, the library should have received its funds last month. She has accused Miller of withholding the money. “In approving the 2012 budget, the town board approved $12,500 of taxpayer funds for the continued operation of the library, which Ms. Miller is now refusing to release,” said van der Leeden. “We request that these funds be released promptly in order to insure the continued operation of the library.” 

Miller claims the problem is not her fault, but didn’t explain why. “I am a library manager,” said Miller. “I would never not fund a library or say that I’m withholding funds, so it’s a misnomer.” However, in a letter, which Miller sent to the trustees on town letterhead, dated February15, she wrote that the funds “will be held on my desk, pending my approval as per our concerns.”

The hostility over the library has upset at least two of Middletown’s town board members. They feel that Miller, who has been in office for two-and-a-half months, has overstepped her authority by withholding library funds and making demands at the library meeting. “We did not give her the authority,” said Jake Rosa, who ran against her for town supervisor. “The board did not tell her to withhold funding or to send a letter to the library board or to demand all the things that she demanded at the meeting or to select library trustees. That was stuff that she made up on her own and it was not a town board decision. It had nothing to do with a collective unit,” he added. 

Board member John Roucek also voiced his opinion. “I agree with Jake,” said Roucek. “The library should be able to pick who they want to work on their board. They need to have their money. We as a board did not vote on withholding any funds,” he added.

During the meeting, van der Leeden told Miller that the trustees did not agree with her authority to make demands of the library’s trustees and that they would consult with Gary Rosa, the library’s attorney. “ If you are speaking as the supervisor, I think it would be good if you could put those requests in writing.” said van der Leeden. Since the meeting, the trustees have spoken with Rosa and drafted a response to Miller.

On Sunday, Miller took to her Facebook blog, “Marge in Charge!” with a 1,300-word post to further explain her position. She wrote that the library is operating at a “dangerous” 50 percent deficit.” She accused trustees of making “dangerous choices” with taxpayer money and called their response to her concerns, “just not schmart.”

Miller launched a political blog in February partly as, “a way to get the word out, sans interpretation and outright nonsense/falsehood in other media outlet!” To find Miller’s blog, log onto margemillersupervisor.blogspot.com.

Continuing to pound on the library’s unbalanced budget, Miller wrote in a letter the editor in this week’s News, “ I told the Fairview board that I would like to increase the funding Middletown gives the library, as well as increasing the funds we give to Skene, but if I cannot even begin to sell an increase to myself due to the Fairview’s budget being so out of whack, how can I possibly sell it to the community, particularly in hard times?”

Editor’s note: Small town newspapers frequently find themselves conflicted when covering news stories. Our employees serve many roles in the community that sometimes put them and the newspaper in conflicting positions. That situation is unusually apparent with the preceding article. The story was written by Pauline Liu who is a former trustee of the library and is married to Joe Moskowitz, who ran against then-candidate Miller in last November’s election for town supervisor. Doris Warner, who serves on the library’s board as its vice president, is also the advertising sales manager for the Catskill Mountain News. Other News writers also have ties to the library. Brian Sweeney’s mother is a part-time employee of the library and reporter Jennifer Kabat recently finished a term of service on the library’s board of trustees. All that said, we have worked hard on this story and feel it is a fair and accurate reporting of the event. — Dick Sanford