Librarians picket council meeting, demand more funding

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange Public Library employees and supporters took to the streets in objection to the Township Council’s decision not to provide additional funding for the library in this year’s municipal budget, holding an “informational picket” outside Town Hall during the council’s April 5 meeting.

Led by staff representative Rene Garzon of Communication Workers of America Local 1031, the several picketers held up signs sporting phrases such as “Support Your Library Staff” while asking drivers to honk their horns in support of the cause. And many did, leading to a steady stream of noise that could even be heard inside Council Chambers during the meeting.

In doing so, Garzon said he hopes the council members and township administration notice the high level of interest residents have in their library before the council votes on the final budget May 3. After the town stopped providing extra monies to the WOPL after 2010 — amounting to a roughly $600,000 reduction in funding in the years since then — Garzon said the town should realize that the library has the reached the point where it can no longer operate under such dire financial conditions.

“We can’t seem to understand why this mayor and the council refuse to give the library additional funding other than what it’s entitled to by the state,” Garzon told the West Orange Chronicle, referring to the “third of a mill” funding formula that mandates all libraries must receive 33 cents for every $1,000 of a municipality’s assessed property values. This year that amounts to $1,988,181. “That’s a travesty as far as I’m concerned.”

The administration and council have pledged to issue bonds to cover needed capital improvement projects at the library, which made up much of the $206,800 in additional funding that the WOPL was seeking. But Sheri Prupis, president of the library’s board of trustees, previously told the Chronicle that the library still needs at least $60,000 for operating expenses since it can no longer afford to use its capital reserve funds to offset the operating budget. Library Director David Cubie previously told the Chronicle the institution’s capital reserve fund is down to $341,541, funds it needs to save in case of emergencies.

Garzon said the union has become involved because the library’s financial situation is directly affecting the staff. Right now, he said the WOPL is considering laying off all its part-time employees, which would result in a reduction of operating hours. This would also lead to the full-time employees being required to work harder with no chance of a pay raise since the library administration does not have any money to bring to the negotiating table, he said.

Meanwhile, Garzon said the union is frustrated to note that raises for several township positions have been placed in the introduced budget. These include an approximately $20,000 raise for the administrative clerk; an approximately $20,000 raise for the chief financial officer; and an approximately $19,000 raise for the tax collector.

Yet when dozens of people spoke out in favor of giving additional funding to the library during a council meeting earlier this year, Garzon said the council members did not address their concerns when putting together the town’s budget.

“They seemed to be somewhat receptive, but a few days later they decided there wasn’t going to be any funding for the library,” Garzon said. “So they show one face, but they do something different.”

Mayor Robert Parisi responded that he respects the library employees’ and supporters’ right to picket, but the bottom line is that West Orange is not financially able to satisfy them now.

“The township does not have the money to fund every program at the level we’d like to,” Parisi told the Chronicle in an April 11 phone interview. “It’s as simple as that. If the library wants more money, that means less money for police, less money for fire, less money for recreation. I understand the frustration, but it’s a real simple math equation — we only have so much money to go around.”

Parisi added that the township is already cutting 15 positions in order to help offset the $4.5 million deficit it faces. And as for the pay raises, the mayor stressed that all wage increases this year were based on contractual obligations — no special raises were made.

Plus, Council President Victor Cirilo pointed out, the administration has evaluated the library’s audited financial statements and plans to meet with Cubie to discuss what additional monetary management strategies can be implemented after discovering that the library has an average of $196,000 in unexpended appropriations at the end of each year.

Not every council member agrees with the decision not to provide additional library funding; Councilman Joe Krakoviak said he thinks the town has gone too far in allowing the library’s funding to be reduced by so much through the years. He hopes to help remedy the current financial situation by proposing reallocations of at least $117,000 at an upcoming council meeting, though his previous reallocation ideas were rejected by the council majority during the March 12 budget hearings.

Still, Krakoviak — who said he has put his name into consideration for the newly created position of library liaison — hopes his colleagues will realize the library deserves to be supported.

“Why isn’t our library a bigger priority for the council?” Krakoviak said in an April 11 email to the Chronicle. “The library needs additional funding just to keep its head above water.”

The library employees on the picket line were well aware of the effect the funding reductions have had on the WOPL. Donna Sharpe, a senior clerk and shop steward, told the Chronicle that the library has seen a 31-percent staff reduction in recent years plus a 40-percent reduction in the budget for books and audiovisual materials. Overall, Sharpe said the WOPL is funded at $466,000 below the average for other Essex County libraries.

Considering those statistics, Sharpe said it is clear why additional funding is so urgent.

“It’s been tough,” Sharpe said as vehicles continued to honk their horns nearby. “The staff is stretched really thin, and everybody’s working really hard. But we need the support.”

And the employees are the not the only ones concerned about the library’s plight. Sophia Raines, a West Orange High School student, said she takes advantage of the library’s resources and programs all the time. Plus, she has found it’s a great way to meet friends and feel part of the community.

When she heard that the WOPL might not receive the funding it needs, she knew that she had to do something. So she wrote an article to be published in the school newspaper and urged her friends to become involved with the cause. And through picketing, she said she hopes the township administration and council will see just how important the library is to residents and do something to help it.

“The fact that they might reduce hours and cut staff is just crazy,” Raines told the Chronicle while proudly displaying her sign, that read “The Library Matters.” “This is a very crucial part of knowledge and information and access to a community regardless of income.

“It’s baffling to me,” she continued. “I just can’t fathom it.”

Photos by Sean Quinn