What began as a request for the Key Largo Library payroll from last year — when the COVID-19 pandemic began — quickly morphed into a bigger question for County Commissioner Mike Forster on compensation within the library system. 

Discussion brought forth by Forster lasted more than an hour during the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners’ April 21 meeting in Marathon. Forster said he received pre- and post-COVID payroll for the library and was “taken aback by the dollar figure,” and not at ground level staff for the five libraries, but at the administrative and support staff level.

“I feel it’s top heavy and that more assets should be used on the ground level,” Forster said in his opening remarks. 

Library reopenings began last month with branches in Big Pine Key and Key West welcoming patrons through the door six days a week in late March. Along with in-person visits, curbside service is also provided to residents. 

Libraries in Islamorada and Key Largo are open for in-person visits three days a week. Upper Keys residents still have the ability to go inside to check a book six days a week with the Islamorada branch on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and the Key Largo branch open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Curbside service is available at both locations six days a week. 

Goodbye week for the old Marathon Library ends April 30, as books get moved to a new facility for a June opening. 

Base salaries, which don’t include benefits, within the Monroe County Library System was $2,095,421 before Covid. Administration and support staff totaled $572,715 followed by the Key West Library, $448,679. 

During COVID, the total base salary within the library system went to $1,902,475, with administration and staff support salaries totaling $588,397 and pay for personnel at the Key West Library totaling $429,186. Payroll throughout the library system post-COVID totals $1,996,015. 

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Forster said figures he received depicted compensation that included benefits, which the county traditionally calculates by taking the salary and adding 30%. Pre-COVID payroll including benefits, he said, was $3 million. During COVID, it totaled more than $2 million.  

Figures provided in a slide presentation by County Library Director Kimberly Matthews show the library payroll during normal operations at $2.5 million when adding in the 30% for benefits. 

In addition to payroll figures before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, Matthews showed that the five libraries from Key West to Key Largo were providing service six days a week for 55 operating hours. While patrons weren’t able to check out books the traditional way inside a branch, Matthews said operations were maintained every day with telephones answered and accounts serviced. She said around 800 people called and signed up for e-cards, while digital usage increased by 30%. 

Matthews also explained how exchanges with patrons changed from the traditional book check-out to people calling in to see what was on the shelf — and stopping by either five minutes or five days later to pick it up. What’s usually a five-minute interaction between librarians and visitors increased to 15, and in some cases, 30 minutes, Matthews said. 

“We started this concierge reader advisory. Once we found something, we’d go to the shelf and check it out and hold it and put it on the shelf,” she said. “Then they’d notify us that they’d be arriving at the building, go back and retrieve the item and take it to their car.”

The countywide furlough went from April 16, 2020 to June 1, 2020. A total of 16 library employees were furloughed. Those who were furloughed could use leave they had accumulated, Matthews said, and operations were affected with curbside delivery not available at that time.  

“We didn’t see any reduction to our payroll as a result of the furlough because most used the leave they had in stock,” she said. 

Matthews also provided a breakdown of library administration support payroll, which shows the library director and systems administrator totaling $165,837. Technical services, which acquires, catalogues, delivers and collects library items, totaled $194,047. The Florida History Department, which Matthews called the “sixth branch” and said “could live in its own facility” totals $128,146. 

“For whatever reason, it is lumped in with us,” she said. 

No action was taken by the board of county commissioners following the discussion. Forster said he wanted to make fellow commissioners aware of his concern and felt it was right to bring it up in the lead-up to budget time. 

“I just think there’s a redundancy on some of the positions on the top level, but I’m not a librarian, and I’m going to rely on Kimberly,” Forster said. “I even mentioned when we’re routed for getting out books to Key Largo and Marathon … can we incorporate that and send different packages to the library and have a person who does that specifically. It’s just streamlining the organization chart to make it more efficient.”

Forster also acknowledged that he never intended to close libraries. He said he was taken aback by the number of emails generated from Big Pine Key just 12 hours before the agenda item was posted to the county website. 

“Nowhere in that heading did it say your library is going to be closed,” he said. “Somebody put out the narrative in that area that ‘I’m coming for your library is going to be closed.’ That couldn’t be further from the truth.

“At previous county commission meetings, I kept fighting for them to open,” he continued. “And we kept delaying because of COVID and best science and best management practices.”

While operations were affected by COVID, Matthews said the number of days the libraries were closed to the public was zero.

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