Friday, March 27, 2015

The Annual Report: It's an Historic Document

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction's (DPI) Division for Libraries and Technology just completed the public library annual report collection process, marking over 120 years that the public library annual reports have been required to be submitted to the State. Considering that some library directors and system staff have complained about the deadline (around March 1, 60 days after the close of the fiscal year), it seems appropriate to give the historical context to the reports, as well as similarities in what is required. The library law of 1875, Chapter 53, Section 23, lists the requirements for the annual report prior to the establishment, in 1891, of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission: "It shall be the duty of the said board, in the month of July of each year, to publish in the official paper of said city, if there be such, a full report of their doings for the preceding year." 

Chapter 42, Section 935 of the laws of 1898 reflects the changes required with the incorporation of the Free Library Commission: "The said board of directors shall make an annual report...stating the condition of their trust, the various sums of money received from the library fund and from all other sources, and how much money has been expended, the number of books and periodicals on hand, the number added during the year, the number lost and missing, the number of books loaned out...and they shall send one copy of this report to the Wisconsin free library commission."

Wausaukee Public Library, circa 1902, Caption: part of a “social hall” that included the library and reading room, a lunch and dining room, and an amusement room. Building donated by State Senator Harland P. Bird
Wausaukee Public Library, circa 1902, part of a 
“social hall” that included the library, reading room,
 dining room, and an amusement room. Building 
donated by State Senator Harland P. Bird
Note that originally the reports were due at the end of the fiscal year of the time--July (the same as the State's fiscal year). That was changed in the early 1940s to require cities and villages to operate on a calendar year. In the 1943 Wisconsin Statutes, Section 43.34 was changed to read: "Within 30 days after the conclusions of the fiscal year of the municipality, the said library board shall make an annual report for the year. Such report shall be submitted to the Wisconsin free library commission...."

For 52 years, from 1891 until 1943, library annual reports were due right after the end of the fiscal year. For the next 56 years, until 1999, library annual reports were due within 30 days of the end of the fiscal year. 1997 Act 150 changed the deadline to within 60 days of the fiscal year end.

Despite the additional 60 days, a number of library directors maintain that they are unable to meet the statutory deadline. Some library directors, particularly in larger municipalities, contend that they cannot complete the financial sections of the annual report until their municipality’s audit is complete. While some cities and villages may be required to conduct an audit of their finances, that is not in order to create an "official" version of the library budget, it is to ensure that the financial practices are safe and effective in tracking the municipal budget. Consider, too, that villages and cities are required by statute to compile a fiscal status report on the current year before presenting a budget for the subsequent year. Wisconsin library boards have a statutory responsibility to file a report by March--that should be based on the budget they administer over the course of the year--approving expenditures against the budget and tracking revenues, investments, and trusts.

Accountant's Officer, circa 1900
Accountant's Office, turn of the last century
Library boards, under Wis. Stat. s. 43.58 (1) “...have exclusive control of the expenditure of all moneys collected, donated or appropriated for the library fund.” If the library board or director contends that a financial report cannot be conducted without the municipality's authorization, then the library board’s exclusive control of its finances has been compromised. But in fact, while the municipality holds the funds and pays the bills, the library board and director should know what appropriations the library has received, the fines and fees collected during the year, as well as gifts and donations. 

The library director and board must also keep track of what has been expended throughout the year, since all expenditures must be authorized by the library board. Relying on the city or villages accounting system can lead to dangerous mistakes since actual expenditures are often posted weeks or even months after the authorization for payment was conveyed by the library. Invoices can also be posted inaccurately by municipal staff, and audits only pull a small sample of transactions for review. By keeping track of the budget itself, the library director and board can ensure against such mistakes and maintain a more accurate point-in-time picture of the library's financial status. It’s not unlike maintaining a checkbook register and reconciling it regularly against bank statements.

Some municipalities apparently do not appropriate funds to the library budget for benefits (although they should), so there may be some question about the final pay period expenditures for workers paid on an hourly basis. Some of those municipalities rely on the auditors, instead of city staff, to make the ledger adjustments for those wages and benefits. Despite that, libraries can easily estimate or pro-rate payroll amounts from other pay periods with sufficient accuracy to calculate for the annual report if the municipal bookkeeper will not calculate the amount. All other expenditures for books, materials, and overhead should be known since the expenditures were approved by the library board. Consequently there is no reason that a report of sufficient accuracy cannot be produced and filed with the DPI by the due date. The statutory requirement for such a report does not require or necessitate an audit; simply that the library board be careful and consistent in recording and tracking revenues and expenditures.

For the Division for Libraries and Technology to compile complete and timely data on public library activities to track performance and trends in order to either take remedial action or effect changes when necessary, all libraries throughout the state must respect and respond to their statutory responsibility to complete and submit the annual report as required. It's the law, and it ultimately benefits all Wisconsin libraries.

Written by: 
John DeBacher, Public Library Development Team