OPL board questions need of council to cut $500K from its budget

ORANGE, NJ — On Wednesday, July 25, Orange Public Library Board of Trustees President Esney Sharpe officially responded to Orange City Council’s cutting $500,000 from the local historic landmark institution’s funding request in Mayor Dwayne Warren’s Calendar Year 2018 proposed budget.

Sharpe and the board had asked the council to approve $1.2 million to fund the library in the budget but only $700,000 was approved during the governing body’s public work session on Wednesday, July 12. According to at large Councilwoman Donna K. Williams, this means the library might not have enough funding to stay open after October.

Speaking on behalf of the OPL board, Sharpe questioned why the full amount had not been approved. Her response matches a statement issued by Orange spokesman Keith Royster on the board’s behalf on Friday, July 20.

Sharpe’s statement sought to clarify issues raised in a Record-Transcript article about the council’s decision that appeared in the Thursday, July 19, edition of the newspaper, and respond to Williams’ assertions about the imminent library closure due to the reduction.

“The July 19 article published in the (Record-)Transcript, ‘Orange City Council cuts $500K from library,’ fails to cover several important points. First, to our knowledge, there has been no communication between the Orange City Council and the Warren administration regarding the Orange Public Library funding. If a meeting did take place, no one from the library was invited,” said Sharpe on Wednesday, July 25. “Based upon your article, it appears that some members of council have decided that the library is not important and should therefore be closed. If this is true, Orange residents would not have a library within their own community. There is no urban municipality that doesn’t have its own library in New Jersey.”

Sharpe gave an abbreviated history of OPL funding and reiterated the institution’s role in the city and community.

“Prior to 2012, the library received higher levels of funding from the township to support programming and the library administration. In fact, most municipalities provide funding above the statutory requirements because they recognize the importance of the library for the community, residents and its children,” Sharpe said. “Our library is a center of learning and opportunity, and we must all double our efforts to keep it that way. The hope is that Orange continues to have a centrally located, safe space, where children, seniors and residents can continue their intellectual and cultural pursuits within the confines of their own community.”

West Ward Councilman Harold Johnson agreed about the importance of the library to the Orange community, but disagreed with Sharpe’s comments regarding the reasons the council decided to trim $500,000 from the $1.2 million request. He said council is working hard to find ways to fill the $7.1 million deficit in the mayor’s budget, meaning tough choices are sometimes necessary.

“It was the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee that made the recommendation to let the library close, not the City Council,” Johnson said Saturday, July 21. No one from the library board attended the City Council budget work session that was open to the public. This is when the representatives from the public, the taxpayers, offered this course of action.”

“We don’t have the $1.3 million to give them, period,” Johnson elaborated. “We gave them everything the administration allotted them this year in the mayor’s proposed budget. How much money have they raised since 2012? They have not given the City Council audits for 2015, 2016 and 2017, and they have no library director. They never raised the match for the $700K grant the mayor had Gov. Chris Christie reissue to the library. … Things that were to be fixed are still broken and out of operation today, yet contracts were issued and paid for.”

Johnson laid the blame for library’s fiscal issues at the feet of Sharpe and the board, adding Warren should shoulder some of the blame, too, since he had appointed or reappointed all of the current OPL board members, including his proxy, Tyshammie Cooper.

“The City Council doesn’t oversee the Orange Public Library. We’ve offered solutions in the past to help, but they have all fallen on deaf ears. We can’t make them do anything; we can only suggest,” Johnson said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers that, where we allocate their tax dollars, it’s spent wisely and it’s accounted for. I think this year’s response to the OPL from the Citizens Budget Advisory Board showed a serious level of frustration with how they have been operating during the Warren administration.”

North Ward Councilwoman Tency Eason said there is more than enough blame to go around, when it comes to the OPL’s longstanding funding issues, structural problems and other challenges. She also describes herself as a Friend of the Orange Public Library, a now-defunct grassroots community group.

Eason was injured at the OPL when a handrail she was using to steady herself gave way during a board meeting at the library in 2014; as a result, the building was closed for almost a year in 2014-2015, after she filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety Hazard Administration that led to the library being cited for a variety of safety issues, including a leaky roof and malfunctioning HVAC system.

“The problem with the library is lack of leadership,” said Eason on Tuesday, July 17. “We, the council, cannot make the decision to close the library. It needs someone who can raise some money to keep it open.”