Checked Out

Members of the Friends Foundation donated their lives to the library. Those days are over.

In May 2002 the already-tense relationship blew up. At Ashton's prompting, Steve Taylor, DPL finance director, prepared a now-infamous memo that claimed for every $1 raised by the Friends, 78 cents went to support the group's operating costs.

"Estimates of DPL staff time spent in support of Friends' operations or fundraising events are significant," the memo reads. "Combined with office rent and utilities, these costs to DPL have exceeded Friends' general fund net income every year from 1999 to 2001."

An attached spreadsheet listed more than twenty library staffers who supposedly devoted time to the Friends (from graphic designers to janitors), holding them responsible for $161,910 in staff costs. These charges included things like cleaning up after the Booklover's Ball and issuing press releases for the book sale. In addition, the memo said the group cost the library $18 a square foot, or $98,118, in rent for using 3,500 square feet of the Central Library's nearly vacant sixth floor to sort books for the annual sale -- plus $5,451 in utilities. In total, Taylor claimed the library provided $265,479 in services to the Friends in 2001.

Volunteers Cynthia Monley (left) and Bonnie Silverman 
organized the Denver Public Library's annual book 
sale until this year.
Mark Manger
Volunteers Cynthia Monley (left) and Bonnie Silverman organized the Denver Public Library's annual book sale until this year.
Former Friend Julie Benson now volunteers at 
Arapahoe County libraries.
Mark Manger
Former Friend Julie Benson now volunteers at Arapahoe County libraries.

"The worst thing was that terrible spreadsheet," says Monley, who was the group's chief sorter. "After we'd worked so hard, we couldn't stand it."

"It sparked a firestorm of reaction on the Friends board, to the point the board was ready to divorce itself from the library," says Ben Duke III, president of the Friends. "I think it was an ill-advised memo. The unfortunate part about that analysis is it didn't take into account the whole picture; it was one-sided. They didn't ask for any input from the Friends Foundation."

Ashton regrets the hard feelings elicited by the memo, but he stands by the central contention that the Friends were not as cost-effective as they should have been. He insists the group's five full-time employees were too large an expense for the amount of money raised -- even though they were paid from the fundraising efforts and not the library's budget.

"The Friends operation involved employing several people, and it produced a net result that was less than it could have been, because there were so many people being paid," he says.

Duke, whose late father headed up the Friends in the early '90s, worked to craft a compromise with Ashton. At first, he thought the library would hand over all fundraising to the Friends, and the group even started looking for an executive director with experience soliciting large donations. But it soon became clear that wouldn't work, either.

"The library didn't appear to want the foundation to manage its fundraising," Duke says. "The foundation board felt the events we operated were fundraising events and should be turned over to the library."

And so the Friends gave up responsibility for all their activities -- the book sale, the Booklover's Ball, several other annual fundraisers and the Library Store -- and laid off all but one of their employees. While Ashton says the Friends voluntarily stepped aside -- which is technically true -- many members feel they had no choice, because it would have been impossible to carry on without the library administration's support.

"This is the most pointed and powerful way during our tenure on the board that Rick Ashton has indicated his lack of support and confidence in the Friends Foundation," the Friends secretary wrote in the group's May 2002 board-meeting minutes, as the members heatedly discussed the memo from library management. "The overwhelming and unanimous reaction was dismay and discouragement. The conclusion seemed to be: 'This is the last straw.' The crux of the matter is the attitude Ashton has towards the Friends Foundation. This problem, according to many previous leaders of the Friends, has existed for many years."

For local bibliophiles, the most obvious signs of the Friends' departure is the first summer in 28 years without a book sale (the library canceled it in favor of a much smaller indoor sale in October) and the vacant Library Store. However, memories of the jewelbox tucked just off the plaza between the library and the Denver Art Museum may fade quickly, since Ashton plans to use the space for the DPL's highly popular collection of videos, DVDs and other electronic media.

"I certainly feel the library has lost important support from the Friends Foundation," says Library Commissioner Ann Kirchof. "I have serious reservations about losing that book sale. It deprives the citizens of Denver of a big annual sale they looked forward to."

The Booklover's Ball is still scheduled for November 15, but it is now being organized by the DPL's three-person fundraising staff, including Diane Christman, director of the office of advancement and communication, who earns $84,672 per year. Assisting them will be the same DPL employees Ashton and Taylor charged the Friends for in their cost-benefit analysis -- and the Friends' own very large mailing list.

"We've done one direct-mail piece from me to 4,000 previous supporters," Ashton says. "That produced $45,000 to $50,000 and was done at very little cost. We would certainly hope that supporters and generous donors would continue to see the importance of the library's work in the community."

Ashton needs every penny he can find. Last year, the city doled out a record $31 million to the Denver Public Library; this year, 7 percent has been hacked away, as Denver grapples with a budget deficit of more than $50 million. The state, facing its own woes, slashed another $2.3 million -- money that had been allocated for libraries outside the metro area to access the DPL collection.

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