$245K for city manager, but library-books budget suffers in Alexandria, VA, Amazon’s ‘Most Well-Read City’

Note: In a hurry? Try a shorter version. And meanwhile, a positive update. Alexandria Mayor William Euille called within minutes after I e-mailed him. No commitment on his part to full preservation of the library funds, which, of course, neither he nor City Manager Rashad Young can do single-handedly—but at least we’re carrying on a dialog. The library budget is the big issue for me in the end, as opposed to Mr. Young’s compensation, even though I think it’s excessive. That said, I was pleased to learn that some years back, there were discussions of salary givebacks from top city officials. Mr. Euille simply doesn’t feel they’re necessary now. On a somewhat related topic, Mr. Euille appeared open to idea of a national digital library endowment, so who knows: perhaps Alexandria can lead the way with a resolution calling for one. It would be a nice start. Meanwhile I’ve revised some of the text below after consulting with a city management  association.  - DR

Old Town Alexandria The city manager in my hardly New York-sized suburb is pulling down at least $245K a year, without fringe benefits included. He or at least his office wants to cut the city’s already-tiny budget for books and other collection items—no more than twice his total annual rewards.

Given all the talk at City Hall about the need for austerity in government, City Manager Rashad Young’s $245K comes across as a mark of Gekko-like disdain toward low-income people and others deprived of full-strength library services. I can’t lay the blame on him exclusively. City officials, who approved it, are the real ones responsible. As I see it, they’re reflecting excesses elsewhere. According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), “The median salary for a chief administrative officer/city manager in Virginia in cities with a population 100,000-249,999 is $203,500.” With a premium to reflect the cost of living in the D.C. area, that would bring us up to Mr. Young’s salary. But is this right? Even at $175K, he could still buy a $650K house and live very, very well.

That $245K, by the way, was Young’s hiring salary here in Alexandria, VA (2013 est. pop. 146,294). What’s the latest level of his total compensation with retirement, health insurance and other benefits thrown in? I’d cherish a precise compensation update, now that Mr. Young or at least his office has again proposed cuts in the library budget for the town that Amazon bizarrely hailed as the country’s “most well-read city.” 

Big checks approved by representatives of major shareholders can be fine in the private sector within reason, such as when their recipients have helped create an iPhone or invented a new cancer cure. Here’s to capitalism, in its place and at its best! But isn’t public service supposed to be—public service? Isn’t this about more than the marketplace? And what about the ripple effect. The higher Mr. Young’s salary, the more risks of salary inflation below him.

Mr. Young is just in his 30s, and, without scoring on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, he is already drawing a higher official salary than the vice president of the United States, the secretary of defense, and other D.C. power people. In fact, as of 2012, he was being paid just slightly less than the chief executive of a neighboring county with eight times Alexandria’s population.

Does this mean I’m calling for Mr. Young’s firing or at least a salary reduction? No, I think we should cut him some slack since he’s hardly the main cause of the problem.

Instead let’s invite him to show some leadership and voluntarily give back some of the $245K—to help fund the purchase of library materials. He could also agree to a delay of any form of compensation increases for himself for the next several years, even the inflation-related variety. If all this happens in a meaningful way, I’ll be a fast forgiver and forgetter. Come on, Mr. Young. Do the right thing. The library’s current materials budget of some $500K is far down from the peak of at least $600K. Prove to us you care. 

And now, to inspire readers to speak out against overpaid public officials in their own budget-challenged hometowns, here is my message for Council member Justin Wilson and member and Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg. I’ll also alert Mayor and congressional candidate William Euille, Mr. Young himself,  the local NAACP’s LaDonna Sanders, and possibly others.

*     *     *

Hi, Justin and Allison. Thanks very much for the dialogue on public library matters. Alas, our fellow Alexandrians won’t be happy about the numbers in the library section of the proposed FY 2015 operating budget from City Manager Rashad Young. Look at the language on Page 11.58, for example.

“Reduction in library materials budget of $30,000, which is offset by $4,472 in additional State Aid. This adjustment results in a decrease in the number of adult and youth materials circulated as well as the turnover rate for both adult and youth materials.”

Just what we need to boost K-12 test scores, right? Beyond the current pledge to hold down taxes, why would Alexandria’s net spending on public library materials actually decline by $25,528? Instead we need at least a 20 percent boost from the current level, simply as a compromise starter. As the LibraryCity site noted in April 2013, “the per capita spending in the Alexandria system on all materials last year was a mere $3.25 per capita–that’s less than the $3.77 Virginia average for FY 2010 and the national one of $4.22 provided in statistics from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.” Those are the latest numbers conveniently available to me. Why is the city so worried about matching executive salaries but so laid back about providing at least average library service? Which choice do you think voters would make at the polls if offered a chance to vote on priorities here? You’ll recall that a few years back, fearing traffic congestion, Alexandrians voted out council members they judged to be too friendly toward a military office project known popularly as BRAC-133. Mr. $245K now risks becoming a human BRAC-133.

Likewise unhelpful is the planned reduction in the net library expenditures from $7,289,752 to $7,082,367, a 2.8 percent drop regardless of the 1.6-percent increase in the size of the proposed budget for the entire city government. Six library jobs (the $168,426 total is well under Mr. Young’s annual salary) will go unfilled for now, according to the page 11-60 of the budget document. I’d love to know exactly what this will mean in terms of library services or nonservices after the library completes its “needs assessment”; so far we’re in the dark, except to read that the work will be spread among remaining librarians.

My own budget-related proposal: A partial voluntary salary give-back and other adjustments from Mr. $245K

A trim in executive compensation at City Hall, including in merit pay if possible, would be far, far more appropriate, so we could maintain or raise the current library materials budget and ideally increase other library resources as well. Here’s another idea. Mr. Young, hired at a salary of $245,000 a year, could reveal excellent leadership qualities if he volunteered for at least a slight salary reduction and encouraged other upper-level city executives to follow his example. He could also ask the city to freeze his total compensation at the current amount for the next several years. I don’t have exact up-to-date figures, but with fringe benefits included, his rewards surely exceed half of the library budget of around $500,000 for books and other collection items. Perhaps the city and its HR people need to give more thought to defining the primary labor market for upper-level executives in national terms and be a little less inclined to compare Alexandria to wealthy nearby localities with more resources.

In fact, if we compare Alexandria with Fairfax County, I’m actually more perplexed in Mr. Young’s case. Fairfax, with eight times Alexandria’s population, hired a county executive in 2012 for some $252,000, just slightly more than the salary of our gold-plated city manager. Sure enough, the county used Mr. Young’s pay as one justification for the $252K. Nice work if you can get it.

I respect Mr. Young for his accomplishments, including his membership on the executive board of the Urban Libraries Council. But the ratio between his salary and the library materials budget  is baffling, especially when the new budget document talks about government priorities. Supposedly the proposed city budget will “help us achieve common goals efficiently and effectively.” Mr. Young earns a higher salary than the U.S. secretary of defense or the vice president. If we really want to gauge administrative talents strictly by pay already awarded, maybe he should cram up at a military academy and take over from Chuck Hagel. Or even go for Joe Biden’s job.

The literacy wars—and a call for a ‘literacy audit’

With or without budget challenges, Alexandria needs to fight its literacy wars better. Despite Amazon’s well-publicized ballyhoo based on its its internal sales statistics, we are a long, long way from being America’s best-read city if we include all of us, not just the well-off people used to shopping online. Can’t City Hall respond accordingly? Didn’t Alexandria citizens make their wishes clear on the library materials issue and related matters last year? Remember, we’re talking about a speck of a speck of a speck of the proposed FY 2015 budget.

Looking over the section on Alexandria City Public Schools, I notice serious ambitions to raise test scores (I’ll be neutral here on the extent to which the scores are valid, and on the issue of teaching to tests). Considering the importance of recreational reading by children and their main role models–their parents–perhaps we need to link the test score issue to the library budget one. These matters should be of special interest to minorities and low-income people in our city. They are the Alexandria citizens most eager for library books and other items, if we extrapolate from a recent Pew survey. Research shows a solid connection between recreational reading and academic achievement. Without sufficient content, as well as people to help absorb it, children will not reach their full potential.

Here’s something that would be useful in the library materials budget discussion and related library and school matters–an audit of Alexandria’s literacy challenges and resources (from people to materials), with attention paid to the family literacy angles. Perhaps the city could set up a taskforce of reasonably paid specialists to conduct the audit. And if qualified volunteers can do the job instead, then so much the better.

The world has energy audits and all kinds of others, besides the financial variety. Don’t Alexandrians deserve the benefits of a literacy audit, consolidating document-based information and other kinds? Among other things, the literacy audit could include such information as:

–The most revealing test scores and literacy statistics for the city.

–How much recreational reading our K-12 students are doing–both by numbers of books read per year and hours devoted to “reading for fun”? Perhaps the local statistics aren’t available. But maybe quick sample surveys could be made, with breakdowns by grade and perhaps even school. I’d be surprised if major discrepancies didn’t exist between children in low-income families and others. Is Rashad Young really expecting the kids of cash-strapped parents to splurge on books for them from Amazon?

–The number of school librarians, media specialists and reading coaches. Have there been cutbacks or increases in recent years? Perhaps the news is good, based on the budget’s overall statistics on teacher-scale jobs per student compared to other localities. But even if so, it still might be helpful to examine if changes could be made, especially considering that Alexandria has so many low-income students  and others with special needs.

–The numbers and kinds of free nontextbook books available to K-12 students from all sources, including the public library, not just school ones. How are we doing per student? How many of these books are appropriate for students’ recreational reading? Any comparisons with other localities? Yes, a good teacher-student ratio will help, and so will the wonderful Alexandria Book Shelf program (which commendably focuses on public housing projects, rec centers and other places with low-income people–while aided by some money from ACPS). But might not well-stocked and fully staffed public libraries, too, be a really, really cost-effective way to help boost test scores?

–Just how much is going for books and other content via Alexandria public schools–both directly and through nonprofit partners? A breakdown? Also, are low-income students enjoying access to appropriate tablets and other devices that would encourage reading for pleasure? I myself would much rather read off a sharp-screened tablet or E Ink machine than a laptop.

–What local nonprofits, the schools and the public library system are doing to promote family literacy–including the provision of books of interest to minorities and low-income adults. Donated books are wonderful, and I applaud new nonprofit efforts. But many of the donated titles will not necessarily be recent or as relevant as they could for minorities and the poor, especially the parents themselves (not to mention the issue of obtaining enough Spanish-language titles). We’ll still need well-stocked school and public libraries, regardless of the considerable merits of the Alexandria Book Shelf approach! ABS organizers themselves have noted the demand. This must not be a zero-sum game. Both the public library and ABS, a project from the DreamDog Foundation, deserve the city’s support.

–How many people in the public and nonprofit categories, respectively, are working on family literacy in Alexandria. Breakdown of job categories?

–An analysis of the collection of the Alexandria public library to see how much of it meets the needs of minorities and low-income people and encourages family literacy (here’s to books for the role models and potential sources of stimulating conversation–the parents, not just the students!). Perhaps the library system could receive extra money to help increase the percentage of this content without reducing services for other patrons. The middle and upper classes won’t support our public library without enough offerings for them as well.

–Statistics on adult literacy and efforts to upgrade it. Very much related to literacy needs of K-12 students!

Never shrug off the possibilities of family literacy programs and reading for fun. The latter link is to a U.K. study, and I’ll quote a summary: “Perhaps surprisingly, reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education. The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.”

Ideally City Council can pass a resolution calling for the creation of a national digital library endowment of the kind proposed on the LibraryCity site—check out the related Baltimore Sun op-ed. The endowment concept would jibe well with the recommendation from a coauthor of the U.K. study to use the right technology to encourage reading, and I’d love to see Mayor William Euille talk about it during his congressional campaign (same for other candidates).

But first things first. Right now, reading the Young budget, I couldn’t help but home in on Alexandria’s immediate literacy needs vs. the $245K for Number One. A partial salary give-back and other adjustments from Mr. Young—with the library budget in mind—might elevate his stature on the Urban Libraries Council and elsewhere. Didn’t President Obama and some other public officials agree to forfeit part of their earnings during the sequestration crisis? We’ve got precedents here. Of greater importance, Mr. Young would be helping to set the tone for a new era of better-targeted priorities in Amazon’s “most well-read city.” Yes, I’ve used harsh language in this essay. But I believe that Mr. Young should be given an opportunity to change—and not just him, but also others who have lost track of the meaning of “public service,” whether or not the topic is library funding.

Some say that the ancient Library of Alexandria was done in not by fire but by budget cuts. “Please,” I would tell Mr. Young, “don’t let the same thing happen to the library in our Alexandria.”

Thanks,
David

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Detail: Not every city has the volunteers and the money to start a Book Shelf-style program. Long term, the real solution is a national digital library endowment to help finance a well-stocked national digital public library system (and an intertwined academic twin), thoughtfully integrated with local schools and libraries.  This would be more efficient than paper books.

Still, I love the idea of allowing kids to own and borrow more books, paper or electronic. Beyond that, some experts believe that young children should be taught to read with paper books, and I say: “Until we know more, give kids and parents a choice!” P-books can be valuable as gateways to e-books, of course, and if Book Shelf itself can get into digital books beyond DreamDog’s current e-story offerings for kids, I’ll clap.

Meanwhile there is already talk of a Book Shelf for senior citizens. Great! E-books and the requisite devices, introduced with the right training, would be just the ticket for the elderly—especially stay-at-homes with health problems.

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