Montclair library will get more funds than it sought Monday, less than it sought Tuesday (or last month)
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
This story has been updated to include new developments the evening of March 15 — including the Montclair Township Council's decision to award $515,000 in discretionary funds to the library under a proposed municipal budget. It also includes more details on the in-flux proposals for funding leading up to that point
The Montclair Township Council would award the public library $515,000 more than it is required to under a budget introduced Tuesday night — after a day of back-and-forth among township and library officials about exactly how much funding was planned.
Mayor Sean Spiller had announced a plan to award the library $500,000 in those discretionary funds Monday night, calling it the “full request from the library.” He told Montclair Local that figure had been agreed upon Monday.
A February memo obtained by Montclair Local shows library officials asking for $561,559 at that point. But Tuesday, Spiller additionally provided Montclair Local with a March 14 message from interim library Director Janet Torsney, formally requesting $500,000 in discretionary funds. Torsney’s message, sent to all council members, said the library’s board of trustees on March 10 had approved a revised budget request of $3,367,267.
Then on Tuesday, March 15, minutes before a Township Council meeting where the governing body would introduce the $95,009,089 municipal budget, library board of trustees Chair JoAnn McCullough sent the council a memo stating that the library was requesting the $561,559 figure after all.
And a listing of appropriations for the library provided by Councilman Peter Yacobellis on Tuesday morning appeared to show the Township Council planning to instead consider a $550,000 award beyond the statutory minimum — $50,000 more than Spiller announced, but $11,559 less than the library requested in February and again on Tuesday.
Yacobellis told Montclair Local that’s what was provided to council members by the township’s administration Friday, and he hadn’t yet seen any update for the meeting agenda as of late Tuesday afternoon.
Council members started their meeting with a presentation reflecting the $500,000 figure in hand. Spiller said, though, another $15,000 would be shifted to the library from $30,000 originally marked for special events.
The discretionary aid supplements the nearly $2.9 million the township must provide to the library under a state law that guarantees libraries a certain minimum of funding, based on a community’s tax base. In all, the budget would award the library $3,382,267.
The municipal budget — which includes the library funds as well as those for all township departments — is scheduled for a hearing and possible final vote on April 19.
Spiller said the funding would help the library to “continue to provide top-notch services to all Montclair residents.”
The February memo said the request at the time for $561,559 in discretionary funds would be enough to step up hours at the library’s main branch from 45 to 61, adding two more evenings to its schedule, as well as full days Saturdays (when it’s currently open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and Sundays (when it’s currently closed).
The library’s Bellevue Avenue branch would step up from 19 to 40 hours, keeping it open six days a week — two full days with evenings, and four half-days (it’s currently closed four days a week, with some hours Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), the memo said.
But even at that amount, library officials said, they’d be drawing down funds in library accounts to continue offering existing services such as the adult school, and they’d need more support in 2023 to keep those programs going.
“We are grateful for your support and leadership,” Torsney wrote in Monday’s memo. “With these funds, we are confident that we can deliver the services Montclair residents want and deserve. We look forward to continuing to work together.”
The mayor’s announcement comes after the township last year conducted a forensic audit of library finances, where consultants say they found more than half a million dollars of overstated expenses. That ultimately prompted a proposal for an agreement with the library that would have tied any discretionary funding to the library’s signing on, and giving the township administration more power over its operations.
The proposal had been backed by the township’s administration, as well as the council’s finance committee — Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Councilman David Cummings. Spiller has said the audit, and ultimately the proposed agreement, were prompted in part by the closure of the Bellevue Avenue branch even as the main branch resumed some operations after pandemic shutdowns, and because the library couldn’t demonstrate it saved money through furloughs — a contention library officials disputed.
Library officials came out against the agreement, and dozens of residents protested outside the library over it in November. Several other council members said they objected to the proposed agreement in principle and in tone as well, questioning whether it was necessary, and it was tabled last year. It has yet to come back to the council for a vote.
Spiller, in messages sent to Montclair Local by email Tuesday, didn’t address whether the plan for the agreement is being put aside permanently.
An increased request
In the Feb. 18 memo, sent from the library’s board of trustees to the township, the board said it was increasing its request to $561,559 in discretionary funds from the $385,792 proposed in a draft budget in November by Peter Coyl, the library’s director at the time. Coyl left Montclair in December to head up the Sacramento Public Library.
With the statutory amount included, that request would have meant a library budget of about $3.45 million, the trustees said at the time.
The trustees said they were “grateful that in a time of economic hardship and uncertainty,” the council provided discretionary funding in 2020 and 2021.
Those years had been tumultuous ones for the library’s budget and operations. In 2020, amid the onset of the pandemic and widespread shutdowns, the council slashed more than $530,000 from its expected discretionary funding for the library, and all in-person library operations were shut down for seven months.
According to the township budget, the library’s ultimate budget for 2020 was $2,983,990 — with $355,221 of it in discretionary funds.
Then, in 2021, the township ultimately gave the library $419,848 in discretionary funding, toward a $3.1 million total budget — but originally proposed $100,000 less. Spiller had said the final amount was contingent on the reopening of the Bellevue Avenue branch.
The 2021 figures are still below pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, the library received $817,766 in discretionary funds, toward a total $3,418,093 budget. But the proposed 2022 budget reflects a 8.62% increase from last year.
Yacobellis said a committee was formed with fellow Township Council members Robin Schlager and Lori Price Abrams, to work on the library’s finances for 2022.
In an email to the library board of trustees Tuesday, Yacobellis urged library officials to up their request from the $500,000 in Monday’s memo: “My colleagues and I have worked very hard to secure this amount. If the board of trustees would like to amend your request back to the $561,000 (knowing that we’ll come up $11,000 short), please do so today. We do have to get out of this cycle of you asking for the best you think you can get vs. what you truly need, and it is my true hope that there is no undue pressure on you to take that approach. I appreciate that the mayor came around on this and is eager to demonstrate cooperation with you to the public, but I also would hate to see you lose out on $50,000 in funding that was going to already be yours.”
In a statement released Tuesday, McCullough said: “We have had a great partnership with the entire council, especially Peter Yacobellis, Robin Schlager, Bob Russo and Lori Price Abrams. We are laying the grounds for further communication on the library’s needs for providing high-quality programming to the community.”
In the February memo, the board of trustees said that after looking more closely at its accounting and changes to pension plan costs, it found the November request of $385,792 couldn’t sustain the library at its current level. In addition, it said, library staffers hadn’t received a pay increase since 2019 — and that a 3% increase, going into effect this year, is “greatly needed.”
The library will be drawing down $440,000 from grants, endowments and gifts, draining reserves, to be used for materials, programs, professional development, museum passes and econtent and technology, according to the February memo. But it says those funds won’t be available in the reserves next year.
“It is expensive to operate two library buildings in a town that is 6.42 square miles, especially when both buildings have needed and still need substantial repairs and upgrades,” the memo says.
The Montclair Public Library Foundation has been funding the purchase of many of the materials, but those funds for such purchases will not be available after this year. The library requested municipal support of $62,000 for materials, as reflected on the appropriations breakdown provided by Yacobellis. The rest of its budget, according to the appropriations breakdown, goes to personnel costs.
“The [Montclair Public Library] Foundation will continue to provide financial support to the library moving forward, but the mission of the foundation is to support enhanced services and programs, and special projects — not to fund operating costs,” Mary Packer, executive director of the foundation, said. “Personnel, operating hours and building maintenance all fall under the purview of the municipality, while the foundation funds things such as the eTuk Bookmobile, the Museum Pass program, the Wi-Fi hot spot lending program, the Open Book/Open Mind program, etc.”
The February memo also states that the Adult School Department is in jeopardy after 2022.
“Once the $197,378 available from grants, endowments and tuition is expended this year, there are no additional funds to sustain the Adult School Department. As a result, the department will cease to exist,” it wrote.
Torsney told Montclair Local that without the full $561,000, the library would have “to do more with less.”
“We are grateful that the mayor and council are including the library in tonight’s discretionary funding appropriation,” she told Montclair Local Tuesday. “These funds assure our shared goals of providing excellent library services, improving early literacy, reaching out to seniors and extending hours. This has been a difficult time for the library and the township but we are committed to working better together. We all want the same thing: A great town should have a great library, and Montclair is a great town.”
Packer said that Yacobellis, along with Schlager, Price Abrams and Russo, “were the champions of the effort to meet the library's funding needs. We deeply appreciate all of their hard work.”
Russo said in a note Monday night he looked forward to supporting funding for the library, saying it was a “vital part of our community and we cannot afford to allow budget disagreements to jeopardize its successful programs.”