WOPL revives Friends group as it faces budget shortfall

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Public Library has revived its years-dormant Friends of the Library organization to raise funds as the library faces the real possibility that the township will not be able to provide the additional $200,000 it is requesting for its operating budget.

Several residents and WOPL employees gathered March 9 for the newly resurrected group’s first meeting at the library to discuss ways of collecting money and piquing interest in the institution. They agreed that holding special programs and classes for a nominal fee could go a long way toward bringing in monies, while local artist Frank Niccoletti suggested having people sell artwork to benefit the library. They also talked about the necessity of attracting new members and furthering the cause of getting the township to fund the WOPL beyond the state-mandated minimum, and Councilman Joe Krakoviak urged residents to attend as many council meetings as possible to get the message across that the library should be a top priority for the community.

Overall, Library Director David Cubie said he is confident that the Friends will only grow from the first meeting, especially considering the overwhelming number of residents who spoke out in favor of the WOPL during the Township Council’s March 8 meeting. And while he acknowledged that Friends groups typically do not make enough money to cover the expenses that municipal funding can — he is hoping the Friends of the WOPL can bring in between $20,000 and $25,000 per year — Cubie said they can make a big difference in covering the costs of everything from programs to new books.

Cubie added that joining a Friends group is an excellent way for residents to channel their support for the WOPL in ways that the library’s finite number of staff and board members cannot.

“(Friends groups) are the passion of the library — they are the lifeblood that motivates and generates enthusiasm,” Cubie told the West Orange Chronicle prior to the meeting. “I genuinely believe that the people of this town truly love the library and truly want to make a difference, and this is a great way for people to take ownership of their library. And that sense of ownership will be what continues to build enthusiasm and growth.”

Moving forward, Cubie said the Friends will likely hold a book sale soon since the WOPL has been saving books removed from its collection for that very purpose. Meanwhile, library enthusiast and attorney Gerald Sweeney said he will start working on obtaining nonprofit 501(c)3 status for the group.

It is especially important right now for the Friends to reach out to other libraries to see how they go about fundraising and devise ideas on how the WOPL can do the same, Sweeney said. That way, he said the township will see that the library is at least attempting to generate its own income and will hopefully feel the need to supplement that money with the major funding necessary to cover things such as capital repairs.

Additionally, Sweeney told the Chronicle it is important for the Friends to show people just how essential the library is to many people’s lives so that the WOPL is not taken for granted.

“A lot of people don’t recognize it, but the library can have an enormous value — it can have a lifetime value,” Sweeney said after the meeting. “But unfortunately a lot of places like libraries don’t promote themselves.

“If you’ve got people out there who recognize that value,” he continued, “(the council) will say ‘This is a community priority. You have to fund it. Let’s try to make sure we do this.’”

Michelle Martin certainly knows the value of libraries. The WOPL supporter said reading has always been a pivotal part of her life; in fact, she can even remember the first book she read by herself. And libraries play a major role in facilitating reading within a community, Martin said, allowing people of all ages to experience different worlds through the pages of a book in addition to offering a sense of community for the patrons who frequently visit them.

As a result, when the Township Council shows its support for the WOPL, Martin said it reflects highly on West Orange as a whole.

“You can always tell what a town values by looking at its library,” Martin told the Chronicle following the meeting. “It offers so much to the entire community.”

Evidently Sweeney and Martin are not the only ones who understand the significance of the WOPL, judging from the outpouring of support at the March 8 council meeting. Approximately 30 people spoke about how the library has benefited them, occupying the entire public comment portion of the meeting. One speaker was 15-year-old Sophia Raines, who said the library’s books comforted her when she first moved to West Orange without knowing anyone and how its clubs allowed her to make friends eventually. Robin Rockman also recalled how she was able to take her children to the WOPL for free activities while using the library’s resources to find a new position after she lost her job. She said that the librarians selflessly helped her whenever she needed it, even if it meant working through their lunch or after their workday had ended.

And those who attended the Friends meeting also had a lot to say to the Chronicle about the library’s positive impact on their lives. Art lover Donna Blaine said the library is the place she goes to find art books, which would be quite expensive if she had to purchase them herself. Doris Moses — who loves reading so much she used to walk clear across her hometown of Garfield just to visit its library — said she appreciates the friendly staff and the fact that she can read as many books, magazines and newspapers as she likes without having them clutter up her home when she is finished.

Michelle Gabriel-Caldwell said the WOPL has been one of the places where her children have practically grown up. And as a childbirth educator, she said the library has helped her professionally by allowing her to hold sessions there for the community. With all that the library has done for her and her family, Gabriel-Caldwell said supporting the institution by attending the Friends meeting was an easy decision.

“When I heard that they were in trouble, my first reaction was ‘What can I do to help?’” Gabriel-Caldwell told the Chronicle prior to the meeting.

The Friends is hoping to garner even more supporters of this mindset in the face of the library’s current financial situation. According to the state’s “one-third of a mill” library funding formula, which mandates that each municipality must pay its public library 33 cents for every $1,000 of a its assessed property values, the WOPL is guaranteed $1,988,181 from West Orange this year — which is actually more than the $1,920,683 it received in 2015 and the $1,932,696 it got in 2014.

But the library maintains that this amount is not enough to cover its operating expenses; the WOPL no longer has enough money in its reserve fund to supplement the municipal funding needed to cover necessities such as building repairs. It currently has an estimated $170,000 to $230,000 in the reserve, which it says it needs to save in case of an emergency. Considering that the library has already reduced its workforce by 31 percent since 2009; cut back on its book and programming budgets; and scaled back its number of operating hours to 60, the library argues that it is already working at the lowest level possible while still providing quality resources to residents.

If the WOPL does not receive the additional $200,000 it is requesting, it says it will be forced to cut its book and programming budgets further, reduce its number of weekend hours from 11.5 to four and lay off some staff members. But Mayor Robert Parisi has said the township cannot afford to pay the extra funding due to the $4.5 million deficit it is facing, considering its proposed budget already raises taxes by 2 percent, increases the sewer fee and digs into reserve funds. If the additional monies were provided, he said the township would have to cut from other essential departments such as police and public works — which are already seeing a downsizing of 17 positions this year.

The funding question will be decided by the Township Council when it votes on the final municipal budget this spring or summer; so far it is unclear what that decision will be — at its March 8 meeting, councilmembers spoke about the importance of finding a balance between fiscal responsibility and providing quality services, though Krakoviak said he is strongly in favor of providing the $200,000 because treating everything as a priority means nothing truly is.

Until that vote occurs, Cubie said he hopes the council will recognize the library’s role as a mechanism for uniting community members of all races and backgrounds, as was demonstrated during the council meeting and first Friends of the Library gathering.