By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES — Iowa’s six Library Service Areas made some $273,000 in questionable payments before closing last fiscal year, a new report from the state auditor says.
The regional centers, each run by a board of directors, collectively received roughly $1.1 million a year in state funds, according to Iowa officials.
Officials at the Iowa Department of Education, which now oversees them, say the problems have been resolved.
“The issues are done,” said Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. “We have been implementing this for a year and have tied up all of the loose ends from the prior library service areas. We are ready to close the book on it.”
The auditor’s report also found missing financial records, making it impossible to track how the money was spent. A number of service areas lacked documentation of authorized employee salaries. Additionally, at least two service areas bought new cars, which cost close to $40,000, according the report.
Many also extended subscriptions for various materials and failed to give the Iowa Department of Education access to credit and banking accounts. The department took over the former service areas last year after lawmakers sought to increase efficiency and provide more consistent services statewide.
“They were mom-and-pop shops, and once we got into cleaning up all the details and liquidating their assets, we found some did a better job of keeping track of the details than the others,” Berger said. “It was left to us to try and pick up the pieces. There wasn’t anyone to call. We did the best we could in reconstructing backwards.”
Iowa lawmakers and the governor last year approved closure of the six library service areas to save money and avoid the inconsistent services received statewide. At the time, the services areas provided resources to neighboring city and school libraries, and were run by a board of directors.
Policymakers moved the service areas — now called district offices — under the umbrella of the State Library of Iowa, an arm of the Iowa Department of Education, Berger said. The transition happened last July.
Iowa Department of Education officials asked for the state auditor’s review to ensure nothing criminal happened, Berger said. The auditor sent a copy of its June report to the Iowa Attorney General’s office for additional review.
Eric Tabor, chief of staff for the attorney general, said the office routinely receives audit reports and only pursues further action if its requested by the county attorney, which is the process outlined in Iowa law.
It’s relatively rare for the state auditor to send cases to the attorney general, said Andy Nielson, deputy auditor. Between 25 and 50 of more than the 300 audit reports done each year are passed along to the attorney general, he said.
The education department started its own review of the library service areas alongside the state auditor’s office. Officials found service area workers significantly increased spending once they heard of the closings. The entire staffs in a number of offices quit, leaving no one to answer questions left by spotty record keeping.
Despite that, Berger said, the department believes all of the money has been accounted for and there was no criminal wrongdoing. He said some of the questioned expenditures were for items currently being used, including cars, laptops and extended subscriptions.
“We just wanted to make sure we had all of our ducks in a row,” Berger said.