Anyone who's dealt with budgets knows there's a difference between budgeting and spending. The two rarely match up precisely.
Still, the process shouldn't be a big mystery, and unfortunately, that's what budgeting for the Beaufort County library system has turned into.
With a county operating budget at nearly $100 million, it's troubling to see the questions raised and not adequately answered in what should be a fairly straightforward proposition -- making sure the library system has enough money to extend hours at the four main branches from 40 hours a week to 50 hours a week.
If we can't figure out the library system budget -- just $3.97 million in a $99 million budget -- what else don't we know?
In June, County Council said it wanted to expand library hours and asked how much the libraries would need to do that. The answer then was $166,000, or so council members thought. Now, more than two months into the fiscal year, and with the four libraries still only open 40 hours a week, library director Wlodek Zaryczny says the department needs $300,000 more to expand hours at just the Beaufort and Bluffton branches, which serve the two largest communities.
That's a head-scratcher just months after the question was first raised in the budgeting process. How did we go from needing an additional $166,000 for extended hours at four libraries to $300,000 for two libraries?
The root of the confusion might lie in money budgeted but not spent last fiscal year. Former County Councilman Steve Baer says $320,000 went from the library system to the county's reserve fund in fiscal year 2013. Was that money available to use this fiscal year for the extra hours? The answer was thought to be "yes" before the budget was passed, and now it seems to be "no."
Too many numbers are being tossed around. The county budget was a moving target throughout the process, up until the day it got a final vote. That's just asking for trouble, and with the library hours, County Council got it.
No one looks good in this -- not County Council and not county staff.
County administrator Gary Kubic met with library officials and came up with 14 short- and long-term tasks for the county and library staffs to address. They include analyzing what library services are most in demand, what areas of the county use the library most, the impact of e-books and future staffing requirements. Library staff members also were told to search the department's budget for expenses to cut so the money could be used to extend hours at the other branches.
"We'll fix this year, but I want to figure out what we're going to do three years from now and five years from now," Kubic said.
That's a good plan, but fixing this year should not have been necessary.
If council members want to restore some of the public's confidence in their ability to handle our tax dollars and provide services the public wants, they'll figure out (for real this time) what it costs to expand library hours to 50 hours a week, determine whether they want to spend that amount and get the money they are willing to spend to the library system. Then they should follow up with county staff to make sure that whatever they decide to do gets done.
And most importantly, County Council needs to reconsider how it puts together its budget, make sure all members are looking at the same set of numbers at all times and that everyone understands where the money is coming from and where it's going.
No more mystery budgets.