Saratoga County

Ballston library, town board heading toward separation to resolve dispute


TOWN OF BALLSTON – The community library and the Ballston Town Board may be nearing a resolution to a dispute that’s dragged on for more than two years. The public feud between the The Town of Ballston Community Library Board of Trustees and Town Supervisor Eric Connolly escalated earlier this week when the library board outlined its grievances with the Town Board in a message shared via email and on social media. And while that communication did little to restore trust between the two sides, it may have moved them closer to finalizing an arrangement that would sever ties between the two bodies once and for all.

The disagreement ultimately comes down to control over the library’s funding and operations. Chartered in 1957 by the state Department of Education, the library is governed by a seven-member board of trustees. But the library trustees are appointed rather than elected, and the library’s budget gets filtered through the town’s budget. Since taking office in 2020, Connolly has questioned the unelected trustees’ authority to control library finances and operations, which the library board said has interfered with their ability to run the library.

Now, both sides say they are in favor of the Town Board passing a resolution in support of updating the library charter to make it so library trustees would have to be elected rather than appointed. The charter would also be updated so that the library’s budget would have to be voted on by the public.

Such an arrangement would allow the two bodies to operate independently and would put an end to a relationship that has seen the two bodies operating collaboratively without incident for more than half a century, according to Steven Zarelli, president of the Library Board of Trustees. Officially amending the charter will require action by the state Legislature.

“As long as our [town] comptroller continues to be satisfied with their monthly financial reporting, I will consider that option,” Connolly said in a written statement in regard to amending the charter.

Zarelli said he would believe the charter amendment resolution is coming when he sees it in writing.

“The say-to-do ratio has been really low,” Zarelli said.

In addition to seeking support for an update to the charter, the library board’s public message asked that the town release the library’s full tax levy and fund balance to the library–instead of doling out the money incrementally–and allow the library to move forward with a construction project that received $107,000 in state grant funding. The library is supported by its own taxing district, which residents see as a separate line item on their tax bills outside of the Village of Ballston Spa, according to the library board.

Zarelli said the library applied in 2019 for the state grant to construct a Local History Room and update LED lighting with approval from the prior town administration. But during Connolly’s administration the library board has faced hurdles to the project, Zarelli said.

The Town Board told the library board that it had no interest in being involved in the construction, so the library board went ahead with pursuing the project on its own, Zarelli said. However, the library board has no written record of the Town Board giving permission to the library board to pursue the project independently.

Connolly said the Town Board never granted permission.

“We are waiting on the library to acknowledge a resolution that the town have an owner/representative oversee the project and documents before approving the funds, which should have been requested and appropriated three years ago,” Connolly said in a statement. “The Board of Trustees accepted a bid with a construction firm for a major renovation without the Town (who owns the building) being named in the contract. It also represented that it has sufficient funds for the renovation when those funds were not budgeted or appropriated by the Town Board.”

In recent months, the Town Board has thrown up hurdles to the project, including requesting that the library board hire a $20,000 engineering firm to oversee the work of Butler, Rowland and Mays Architects, which is the firm that the library has already hired to manage the project, according to Zarelli.

Zarelli said Connolly also informed the library board that it had never passed a resolution to properly receive the grant funding. Zarelli said the library board has since taken this action.

“They are just paperworking us to death,” Zarelli said.

But Connolly said the library board’s “missteps” with the project raise red flags.

“I believe (as do our Town Comptroller, Town Attorney and Town Board members) that the library Board of Trustees made serious procedural missteps when it applied for a NYS grant that required a matching library fund balance that was never budgeted or requested from the Town Board,” Connolly said in a written statement. “Upon further review, the town discovered that these grant funds were commingled with other accounts rather than being deposited in a separate account for a capital project (breaking proper accounting practices).”

Zarelli said the funds have since been separated.

The library board has the support of the the Southern Adirondack Library System, a voluntary association of 34 public libraries in Hamilton, Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties. A library’s board of trustees is granted operational authority over a library–regardless of whether the members are elected or appointed, said Sara Dallas, the director of the Southern Adirondack Library System.

“The trustees are the group that is responsible for the library,” she said.

Dallas pointed to the “Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State,” which spells out the code of conduct trustees agree to when signing the oath of office, including that “a member has a responsibility to insure that the institution’s resources are dedicated to the fulfillment of its mission.”

But Connolly said the Town Board has asked the New York State Comptroller’s Office to weigh in on which body has the ultimate financial and operational authority over the library under the current charter.

“We are currently preparing a request for the Office of the State Comptroller to ask for an opinion whether the library needs Town Board approval to appropriate unbudgeted fund balance. We believe they do but will respect the guidance of the OCS whatever that may be,” Connolly said.

Both sides said they are hoping for a workable resolution soon.

“We are looking for an amicable solution, and all we want is the town to be open and transparent and communicate with us,” Zarelli said. “It’s like pulling teeth, and we don’t know why.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: News, Saratoga County

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