By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – Residents advocating to keep open the township’s three library branches slated to close March 1 have a few short weeks to come up with alternatives to sway the library’s board of trustees.
The board has delayed its final vote until Feb. 20 on the library budget. It is a spending plan that now calls for shuttering all of the satellite branches, leaving just the main branch, 55 New Monmouth Road, operating.
The board agreed to wait, giving a group of residents intent on saving the branches “an opportunity to work with our finance committee to come up with some viable options,” said Susan O’Neal, library director.
The board initially planned to vote on the budget on Jan. 16, which would have meant closing the three branches on Jan. 25. “The board is committed to closing them unless some other community-based option is developed,” O’Neal stressed.
The three branches are located in the township’s Navesink, Lincroft and Port Monmouth sections and cost about $100,000 per branch, per year to operate, O’Neal said.
“It’s completely a financial decision” to close them, the director insisted. “We don’t have the money to run the branches.”
But some residents oppose the plan and it was their passion that persuaded the board to wait, O’Neal said.
Those voicing support of the satellite branches believe a little budget tweaking could be sufficient to save the three locations, which provide the outer reaches of the large and sprawling municipality with a community-based center and allow local residents, especially children and seniors, access to library services in those areas.
“In a town this large, to be able to have a neighborhood meeting spot where people of all ages can walk to from their homes to access not only the Internet but books and to take advantage of all the programs that the library has to offer, is so important,” said Stacee Samuels, who uses the Navesink branch. She fears with the closing of the branch, “We’re losing our sense of neighborhoods.”
The library’s proposed 2013 budget is $3.9 million, with 89 percent, about $3.5 million, coming from the municipality. The town’s funding is based on 3 percent of taxes for assessed property value, as outlined by state formula with the remainder of the operating expenses coming from fees the library charges users and some state aid, amounting to about $29,000 a year, according to O’Neal.
Over the last four years the township’s contribution has shrunk from $4.1 million in 2009 to the current proposed $3.5 million, as the municipality experienced a decrease in property assessments, O’Neal said.
“We know 2014 is going to be even worse,” she said, as the town continues to recover from the effects of Super Storm Sandy on properties.
Another factor is that the township requires the library to pay what O’Neal called “chargebacks,” obliging the library to reimburse the town for workers’ compensation, liability and health insurance costs, administrative services and pension contributions – costs that have escalated over the past few years. Last year those costs amounted to about $338,000. In 2011 the library board gave nearly $500,000 from its surplus to the municipality to be used for property tax relief, she said.
All that, O’Neal said, has meant the board of trustees has had to rely on its dwindling surplus to offset the cost of the three branches.
“It really is all about the money,” the director said. “We would keep them open if we could.”
Melanie Elmiger, a Lincroft resident who has agreed to work with some other residents to try to find a solution to save the three branches, disputed some of O’Neal’s assertions. “This is not about a lack of money; this is about a lack of control of that money,” she said, alleging that the township committee is engaged in what she called a “turf war” with the library board, over the library’s surplus, hoping to use it to offset other township expenses. As evidence she points to the 2011 very public confrontation between the two bodies over the nearly $500,000 tax-relief payment.
She suggests that the situation could be resolved if the entities would re-examine and trim the chargeback costs, which Elmiger charges are inflated and punitive, based upon her own research.
Middletown pays $1 a year for the use of the building for the Navesink branch, a historic structure overseen by a private foundation. The Bayshore branch in Port Monmouth is owned by the township, while the Lincroft branch is owned by the Board of Education.
Elmiger contends the library system’s savings with the closings wouldn’t amount to much because existing employees would be transferred to the main branch.
O’Neal said the three full-time employees currently assigned to these locations would transfer to the main branch, while other part-time positions at these sites have been eliminated through attrition.
Township Administrator Anthony Mercantante took exception to Elmiger’s characterizations.
“She’s completely wrong, She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he fired back.
The chargeback fee was mutually agreed upon by township representatives and members of the library trustees’ finance committee, Mercantante said.
“She [Elmiger] is not happy with that,” he contended. “She wants to believe it’s something that was forced on the library and that’s simply not true.”
Meanwhile, Elmiger is working to avoid the closing because she said “the library is an essential; it’s not a luxury,” especially for some sections of the community, like the Bayshore area, where residents, hit hard by Sandy, have needed access to computers and the Internet to search for assistance and resources.
Samuels said she was livid over its lack of notice to the public about the move. “That is my biggest problem – no communication at all,” she said. “Their intentions are honorable, I’m sure, but why wasn’t the public told we have a problem here?”
While O’Neal said residents working to save the branches “may come up with a reading room, or a private library alternative,” that would relieve the trustees of the financial burden of running a location or locations, she acknowledged she was “not overly optimistic.”