By John Burton
RED BANK – Though talks between borough officials and the library board of trustees has yet to result in any changes in the budget situation, officials remain hopeful for the long term.
Recently, budget constraints have required the library to reduce staff, service and hours. While the borough would like to see some reinstatements, there is no money it can offer to achieve that goal.
Board of Trustees President John Grandtis said discussions with borough officials boil down to: “They tell us to live within our budget. So, you live within your budget.”
Grandtis said he has met on a number of occasions with borough administrator Stanley Sickels and chief financial officer Eugenia Poulos about the library’s financial difficulties, with hopes of finding some solution to mitigate the board’s decision in March to layoff six staff members and scale back operating hours.
The administrator told Grandtis that all departments’ budgets are remaining flat as the municipality tries to keep a reign on expenses in its annual budget. Any additional funding for the library is simply out of the question, Grandtis said. “We were told there was no more money coming in.”
Sickels did not return calls seeking comment this week.
Mayor Pasquale Menna, who was not in attendance when this was discussed, agreed with that assessment. “The borough is not in a position to offer more money,” he said.
Menna said there are a lot of things the borough would like to do if money wasn’t a factor, including expanding parks and recreation programs, hiring more police, give borough employees more raises. “At some point in time we’re given instructions from the state about living within our means,” when the local budget doesn’t pass muster with state officials, Menna said. “The same is true with other bodies in the municipality.”
The nine-member library board undertook a restructuring of the library, 84 West Front St., that included the layoff of three full-time and three part-time employees; cut operating hours by more than half, down to 20 hours a week, with only one evening and no Saturday hours; and curtailed popular programs the library has traditionally offered.
The steps were taken to address a $130,000 shortfall in the library’s 2014 budget.
The amount the municipality contributes to the library is mandated by a state formula; however, the amount has decreased over the last couple of years due to property devaluation. This year the borough’s contribution is pegged at $668,788. That, coupled with other mounting costs, such as personnel expenses, including a $72,500 sick-day payment buyout for an employee retiring after 30 years, has resulted in the shortfall, library officials have said.
Over the past few years, the board has been using money from a trust, established to support the library and its structure to pay its bills. “If you keep doing that, eventually it’ll be gone,” Grandtis said.
The board president said the board has been pressured by Sickels to reinstate full-time employees. As union members, seniority allows them to take other positions within the borough, possibly bumping other workers.
That, Menna acknowledged, “has certain repercussions with other borough employees.”
Grandtis countered that giving those employees their jobs back “puts us back in the same position we were in in the beginning of the year.”
Fellow board members were “shocked” at hearing the administrator raise that issue, he said.
Municipal officials had made overtures, offering some assistance, including first offering – and then withdrawing – an offer to once again pay for the library building’s utilities as it had done until a few years ago. They also discussed the possibility of allowing the library board access to about $79,000 left over from a bond issued for the library’s $1.7 million renovation project about five years ago, Grandtis said.
The offers, while welcomed, are either too small or, as in the case of the bond money, come with such stringent legal constraints for what can be done with it, Grandtis said.
The push for board members is trying to figure out a way to reinstate hours, especially on Saturdays, he said, conceding, “It’s going to be a tough year. We’re going to take some hits.”
Menna, however, believes some sort of solution is possible and conversations should continue.
“The borough is always willing, ready and able to discuss any issues and would make positive, constructive suggestions in keeping a reasonable complement of employees, as well as reasonable operating hours, based on minor adjustments that will keep the library open,” the mayor said.