Township to issue bonds for library improvements

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Public Library will not receive the $206,800 in additional funding it had requested from the township as part of this year’s municipal budget; the Township Council decided to follow the mayor’s recommendation to give the library the $1,988,181 minimum guaranteed through the state’s funding formula at the March 12 budget hearings. But the WOPL will still be compensated — in a different way than expected.

Mayor Robert Parisi told the West Orange Chronicle that the township plans to issue bonds to pay for several capital improvement projects at the WOPL, a major reason the local institution was requesting the additional funds in the first place. Parisi said these projects will include the repair of the building facade — which has been a source of concern for both the library and the town since the brick front collapsed in January 2015 — and will also address needs related to the library’s HVAC system, restrooms and other areas.

It is not yet certain exactly how much the township will fund through the bonds, but this is something the administration is currently figuring out, according to Parisi.

“We’re going through some of the capital projects that are needed there and prioritizing them and trying to get a handle on what we believe, to the best of our ability, the actual costs would be,” Parisi said in an April 1 phone interview. “We don’t have a final number yet.”

Sheri Prupis, president of the West Orange Public Library Board of Trustees, told the Chronicle that the costs of the projects listed in the recent Library Improvement Study amounted to roughly $1.5 million, though it is not known whether the township will be able to cover that total. Council President Victor Cirilo estimated that the township will bond $600,000 for the improvements.

What will really affect the matter is how much the facade replacement will cost; though Prupis estimated that the project will probably cost approximately $500,000, Parisi said the exact expense will greatly be determined by how the bids come in. At the moment, the mayor said the township is working with the library administration and professional architects to design a plan that is “appropriate in both looks and cost.”

In the end, Prupis said the township will have the final say on all decisions about the facade since the library is owned by the municipality, though she hopes the administration will continue to keep the library’s leadership in the loop. In the meantime, she said the library is extremely grateful to West Orange for committing to bond for the library’s much-needed improvements. The board president called it a “huge win” for the WOPL staff and the numerous residents who came out in support of the library in the weeks leading up to the budget hearings.

Yet even with the capital projects covered by the eventual bonds, Prupis said the WOPL still needs some additional funding to pay for books, programming and employees. Since the township has not provided additional funding for the library’s operating budget since 2010, she said the library has seen a more than $600,000 reduction in funding. And though the library tried to compensate for that by moving some of its capital reserve funds into the operating budget, she said it still had to cut back on its book and programming budgets, reduce its hours and lay off some of its employees.

Now with the WOPL unable to afford using any more of its capital reserve fund — which Library Director David Cubie said is down to $341,541 — Prupis said it hopes the township can make up the difference. She said the bonds will be a tremendous financial relief, but the library still needs at least $60,000 to keep from struggling this year.

“If we were able to get as little as $60,000 from the town, it would make a huge difference,” Prupis told the Chronicle in a March 31 phone interview. “We’re hoping that if (the council members) will go through each line item of their budget, they will find (the money).”

Cubie agreed that the library could really use the additional funds. The WOPL director said he understands that the township is in a difficult financial situation, but told the Chronicle that he hopes the council members can somehow find the funds to support the institution after everything it has done to keep itself going.

“The library has been working very hard so the burden doesn’t fall on the taxpayers,” Cubie told the Chronicle in a March 31 phone interview. “But there are things that are municipal responsibilities.”

If the council is unable to supply a minimum of $60,000, Prupis said the WOPL will have to make cuts, though not nearly as many as before the township agreed to bond for the capital improvements. While she is unable to comment on what those cuts will be specifically until after the library budget is presented to the public at the board’s April 21 meeting, Prupis did stress that the library’s goal is to maintain all of its full time staff members.

Councilman Joe Krakoviak told the Chronicle that he has already found nearly $118,000 that could go to the library just by quickly going through the budget and picking out costs he felt were unnecessary. He listed $20,128 for training that he said has been in the budget for years without ever being spent; $50,000 of the $125,000 allocation for labor litigation when the town only spent less than $53,000 last year; and $16,000 for marketing, when nothing was spent last year, as a few examples of funds that would be much better used for the WOPL.

But the rest of the council did not agree, which Krakoviak said he finds disappointing, saying he is concerned about the WOPL’s present and future if the township continues not to provide additional funds. With a few weeks left before the public budget hearing on May 3, Krakoviak said he hopes his fellow council members will reconsider their original decision and think about how they can help such an important institution.

“Where we allocate the budget reflects our priorities for the town,” Krakoviak said in an April 4 email. “I believe in a vibrant library, and we’re not going to have one unless we better prioritize our spending.”

Cirilo, a former library board president himself, told the Chronicle that “everything is still on the table” before the final budget vote. But, as important as the library is to West Orange, he added that the township can only support it as much as is financially feasible. And with the municipality facing a $4.5 million deficit and depleting its reserves to just $1 million to keep the tax levy at the state-mandated 2 percent, he said rebuilding those savings should be the town’s focus right now in order to prevent future monetary issues.

“The No. 1 priority is making sure that the municipal reserve is not impacted as much as we’re impacting it this year,” Cirilo said in an April 1 phone interview. “The lower the reserve, the less money we have going into next year to play with and the higher the tax increase next year.”

Even if the township does not provide the library with additional funds this year, the WOPL will not be entirely without a source of funding. Cubie said the Friends of the Library group that reformed in the wake of the current budget crisis is going quite well, with the organization selecting residents Gerald Sweeney and Marge Mingin as its co-chairpersons. It even has made plans to sell refreshments to raise money for the library at the upcoming Slide the City attraction on June 4, he said.

That is not the only thing the Friends are planning. In an April 2 email, Mingin told the Chronicle that Sweeney has started the process to make the group a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Plus, she said the organization’s second meeting on March 30 saw approximately two dozen community members gather to devise ideas for future activities and ways for the Friends to raise awareness for their mission.

For now, Mingin said $25,000 would be a good amount for the Friends of the Library to raise in its first year. But to do that the group will need a lot of help, and she is hoping that the West Orange community will get involved with the cause.

“A 21st-century library requires a high level of support to meet the ever growing needs of its patrons, be it financial or patron involvement,” Mingin said. “I believe a strong and active Friends group can assist with both. Volunteerism and advocacy are essential in assisting with the success of the library’s newly completed strategic plan. West Orange is a great place to live and deserves nothing less than a great free public library.”