On Monday, the Montclair Public Library is resuming its pre-pandemic hours — after a years-long progression that saw once-shuttered services return in stages amid sometimes tense budget negotiations with Montclair Township.

The library's main branch has been open six days a week, and its Bellevue Avenue branch three days a week, under the most recent version of its schedule. But starting Monday, the main branch will be open every day, and the Bellevue Branch will step up to six days a week.

An announcement from the library quoted its interim director, Janet Torsney, saying the change was possible "thanks to the generous support of the township and our donors."

But last year and this year, the library and its supporting organizations engaged in months-long, sometimes fraught disputes with township officials after the municipal government had consultants conduct a forensic audit that the consultants said 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 township taking more control over its operations. That agreement never signed, and member of the township council and administration who'd advocated for it haven't brought it up in public since late last year. Library administrators and supporters had protested a draft of the agreement — saying it was a heavy-handed response to overblown or unfounded concerns about financial mismanagement.

Any discretionary aid the township awards supplements a statutory requirement it must provide under a state formula based on a community's tax base — a little under $2.7 million in 2021, and about $2.9 million this year.

In 2021, the Township Council initially proposed $419,848 in discretionary funds for the library — or a $3.1 million budget overall. The council ultimately agreed to add another $100,000 to the total, in exchange for a promise to reopen the Bellevue Avenue Branch — which had closed along with the main branch early in the pandemic, but unlike the main branch, hadn't reopened to that point.

That was still about still $400,000 below the amount the library was working with in a temporary budget earlier that year, or the types of levels the library had been funded before the coronavirus pandemic set in. In 2020, the township had cut library spending by more than $500,000 from that year’s original budget, as countless private and public facilities statewide shut down amid coronavirus restrictions and fiscal uncertainty. The library was closed for seven months. Some in-person services resumed in October 2020 at the main branch on South Fullerton Avenue. Several staff members were furloughed or let go.

In March of this year, the Township Council agreed to give the library $515,000 in discretionary spending — just above what Mayor Sean Spiller at the time called the "full request from the library," though the exact amount of the library's request varied in a series of communications as negotiations up to that point continued. At one point, the request had been as high as $561,559; library officials reiterated that request the day the award was given. In all, the budget award to the library for 2022 was $3,382,267.

Even at that amount, library officials said earlier this year, they’ll be drawing down funds in accounts to continue offering existing services such as the adult school, and they’d need more support in 2023 to keep those programs going.

And the 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 2022 budget reflects a 8.62% increase over 2021.

“We are grateful for your support and leadership,” Torsney wrote in a March memo to township officials. “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 library's main branch hours will be Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 6 p.m.

The Bellevue Avenue branch will be open Monday from 2 to 6 p.m.; Tuesday from 10 to 8 p.m.; Wednesday from 10 to 6 p.m.; Thursday from 10 to 8 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m.

— Includes previous reporting by Jaimie Julia Winters

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