Library looks to township to make ends meet

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Public Library is asking the Township Council for an additional $200,000 in its 2016 budget beyond the minimum allotment the state requires of municipalities for library funding, but this won’t be possible in light of this year’s severe economic constraints, according to the township administration.

According to the state’s “third of a mill” library funding formula, which mandates that municipalities must pay their public libraries 33 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property values, the WOPL is guaranteed $1,988,181 from West Orange this year. That amounts to more than the $1,920,683 the library received in 2015, and $1,932,696 in 2014.

But that amount is not enough to cover the WOPL’s operating expenses, according to Library Board President Sheri Prupis. Prupis said that ever since the township stopped providing the $100,000 to $600,000 in additional funding it used to give in 2011 — a year that also marked the beginning of a series of lower library “third of a mill” funding as property values decreased — the library has been supplementing its budget with monies from its reserve fund. As a result, the fund has shrunk to an amount estimated to be between $170,000 and $230,000, which it needs to hold onto in case of an emergency, Prupis said.

Though Prupis said the WOPL does receive an average of $20,000 in state funding and $40,000 in fees and fines each year, this will not be enough to cover the library’s needs. It is therefore up to the council members to supply the additional needed resources, which is an action that the library board president is urging them to consider.

“We’re asking the town to make a very difficult decision because it has many competing needs in town to be funded,” Prupis told the West Orange Chronicle in a March 4 phone interview. “We passionately plead that the library should be up there (as a priority) because it’s really important.

“We believe it’s the right way to spend a portion of taxpayer money,” she added.

If the WOPL does not get the $200,000 it is requesting, Prupis said the library will be forced to undergo cuts to the book and programming budgets, and will probably have to reduce its hours of operation from its current 60 hours per week, she said, though it is already close to the state-required minimum of 50 hours per week. And once those cuts are made, she said the WOPL may still have to let go some staff members, though she said it would try to lay off as few employees as possible.

Those cuts will only further hurt the library after years of operating at what Prupis described as the lowest level it could while still providing quality resources to residents. Since turning to its reserve fund, she said the WOPL has cut back on hours and spending for books and programs. Library Director David Cubie also pointed out that it has seen a 31-percent reduction in staff during the past six years, from 25 full-time employees in 2009 to approximately 17 in 2015. In fact, the WOPL has fewer full-time workers than other libraries serving populations of similar size, including South Brunswick’s 33 employees and Hackensack’s 31.

Mayor Robert Parisi said no one can deny the library’s importance to the community, but he simply does not see how the township can afford the $200,000 it is requesting. He said West Orange is facing an approximately $4.5 million deficit in 2016 brought on by an increase in operating costs, particularly a $3.9 million increase in health insurance costs due to a large number of employee and retiree claims in the past year. With residents already facing a tax increase even after the administration worked to cut expenses, he said he just does not think it possible for the township to spend the amount of money the WOPL is seeking, despite it being a worthy cause.

“We try to be careful with the money we have, and every department has its own important need for the community,” Parisi told the Chronicle in a March 4 phone interview. “I’d love to give the library more money, but then we’d have to figure out where we take $200,000 from someone else. And that’s not an easy decision to do, especially since nearly every other department is losing additional positions as part of this budget.”

Indeed, the mayor said almost all township departments will lose between seven and nine employees this year. And if the council does approve spending an additional $200,000 on the library, those departments will have to be cut further, though he does not know at this point what would be reduced, he said.

The decision is not one that council President Victor Cirilo takes lightly. Cirilo, a former WOPL Board president who recently met with library management, told the Chronicle he understands the WOPL’s concerns and knows the necessity of providing quality services to residents. He added that as a council member, his objective is to ensure that the municipal tax rate is not increased significantly.

So, when the council eventually discusses what it will do about the library’s budget, Cirilo said he will weigh both sides before coming to a decision.

“We need to find a balance between fiscal responsibility and quality services,” Cirilo said in a March 4 phone interview. “When I go into the council session, what’s always in my mind is how much do I want my taxes to go up? At the same time, the value of my house is tied to the quality of services that we have. So we’re going to maintain the quality of life that we know as best and as affordably as possible without severely impacting that tax rate.”

Councilman Joe Krakoviak, on the other hand, knows exactly how he would like to see the library situation handled. Having spoken in favor of providing additional funding for the WOPL on several occasions, Krakoviak told the Chronicle he thinks not providing the money the library needs is bad strategy over the longterm. He urged the rest of the council to recognize how vital the institution is for the community and to treat it as such.

“The council should make the library funding a higher priority and study the proposed budget so that we make sure that we provide a good match between funding and the library’s costs,” Krakoviak said in a March 7 email. “We need to find additional funding from lower-priority spending elsewhere in the budget.”

Meanwhile, many residents are also coming out in favor of the library. A petition calling for the township to fund the WOPL over the state-mandated minimum has received 172 supporters as of press time March 8, with many residents writing on its website about how the library has benefited them.

According to Cubie’s records, in 2015 the library saw 152,122 visits with 272,809 items in circulation. A total of 378 programs were attended by 9,406 patrons, including nearly 200 children’s programs alone. Additionally, residents asked the reference desk for help 22,691 times and used the computers 31,800 times.

Frank Niccoletti is a supporter who has volunteered to distribute the petitions on behalf of the library, telling the Chronicle that he has not yet received a rejection. A longtime WOPL patron, he said the library is a pivotal institution within the community, providing resources including books and computer access to residents who might not otherwise be able to afford them. It is also a center of learning considering the educational programs and research services it offers, he said, and serves as a meeting place for community members of all ages. He recalled recently seeing children of all races playing together joyously as part of the library’s LEGO Club, a program that may soon be on the chopping block.

Niccoletti stressed that he understands the difficult situation the Township Council is in and said the library could find its own ways of obtaining money, such as establishing a Friends of the Library fundraising organization. But right now the library needs the township’s financial support, he said, and he would not mind paying a small tax increase to cover it.

“A small additional increment in taxes may be appropriate for the library,” Niccoletti said in a March 4 phone interview. “If it’s appropriate for infrastructure expenses, is there really anything about the library that can’t also be described as part of our intellectual, cultural and educational infrastructure?”

Prupis estimated that an additional $200,000 for the library would amount to an average of roughly $6 per resident.

Bill Cofone is another resident who would have no problem paying an additional tax to support the library. As a former president of the West Orange Arts Council, he said he has worked with the WOPL for years to put on art shows for residents and knows how important the institution is to local culture. He is disturbed to see the institution in such a predicament, telling the Chronicle that the community should find a way to help the library get the funding it needs.

“It is the cultural center of the town for all people,” Cofone said in a March 4 phone interview. “If, year after year, you’re going to keep beating up on the library, you’re not going to have it.”

Parisi said the library does deserve strong support from residents but maintained that the current budget situation prevents the administration from acting as advocates would want.

“The library is a great resource in town — this is not a commentary on the library,” Parisi said. “It’s mathematics. We simply do not have enough money.”

Whether the council agrees remains to be seen — members are expected to vote on the final budget this spring or summer.

Meanwhile, repairs to the library’s facade, which collapsed Jan. 29, 2015, have not been made. Library attorney Michael Cerone told the Chronicle that the township had proposed to bond for the repair cost and let the library pay for the debt service out of its own budget, but state law prohibits public libraries from using its “third of a mill” funding in this way. Since the library is owned by the township, Prupis said it is the library board’s position is that the township pay for the repairs as it would for any other municipal building.

No decision has yet been made about how to proceed, though Cirilo said the attorneys for the township and the library are looking into what the best course of action should be. He said the facade was ruled uninsurable because the collapse came as a result of wear and tear.