Residents petition against cost of library

South River officials defend expansion as an ‘investment’ in town


Staff Writer

 "We have to move forward and move our library into the 21st century. And the cost, although it is high, is an investment."  -  Anthony Razzano councilman “We have to move forward and move our library into the 21st century. And the cost, although it is high, is an investment.” – Anthony Razzano councilman With the cost of South River’s library renovation project likely to exceed $5.5 million, a group of residents have petitioned for the plans to be scaled back.

“We … are urging the mayor and council of the Borough of South River to rescind the bonding for the current plans to expand the South River Public Library,” the petition reads.

Signed by 546 people, the petition goes on to state that while they agree some enhancements are needed at the library, they want the governing body to downsize the project, which they said is not fiscally responsible.

“The total costs, including equipment such as computers and staffing, as well as structural updates, should not exceed $3 million,” the petition reads.

The library building, Appleby Avenue, was expected to begin undergoing renovations this fall, and the library program would be temporarily relocated for the duration of the project. The new library is to have more space for its catalog, a new children’s area, an adult section and a center circulation area that will act as the hub of the facility.

The Borough Council approved the capital project in its 2007 budget, with expansion and renovations being funded with surplus money from the borough’s water budget.

Councilman Anthony Razzano, who serves as liaison to the library board of trustees, said the cost of the project will likely exceed the $5.5 million bonded for it. He sees the project as an investment in the borough.

“We invested in upgrading our public schools, and we don’t want to stay stagnant,” Razzano said. “We have to move forward and move our library into the 21st century. And the cost, although it is high, is an investment.”

The cost will exceed $5.5 million due to the need to rent space for the library’s temporary relocation.

“To not go forward with this project would be penny wise and dollar foolish,” Razzano said. “And to cut it back, I don’t know if [the objectors] looked at the project, but I got no suggestions on what to cut back or how to make it better and cost less.”

The new project manager, Hunt International, will further review the costs, Razzano said.

“We want the project manager to come in and look at these things and give a professional judgment on how to go ahead,” he said.

Library Trustee Leslie Roselli said the borough received two cost estimates that are within the amount bonded for. The estimates are for the cost of construction, and do not include furniture or additional staffing.

“The library board of trustees is aware that there will be additional costs,” Roselli said, “and we have been saving over the years to cover additional staffing for the first year after the library opens.”

Fundraising through art auctions has raised $20,000 for the project, Roselli said, and more fundraisers are being planned.

Trustee Barbara Jensen addressed the Borough Council on July 23, saying the final cost of the project is not yet known since the town is in the process of going out to bid.

“It is important that the community be aware,” Jensen said. “A lot of money has already been spent by the municipality.”

Bonding for the project is at $5.5 million, which includes the addition, construction costs, payments made to the architect for drawings, and other preparations. Jensen said the public has been given ample opportunity to voice concerns, and library staff and trustees have done what they can to ensure that the project is at the lowest possible cost.

“We asked continually for input,” Jensen said. “Many were given an opportunity to participate.”

Resident William Kahse said he is concerned about the eventual cost of the project, noting that furniture and computers are not included in the bonded money.

Councilman John Krenzel said that he will only agree to the council setting aside $5.5 million.

“I’m not going to be in favor of it costing more than $5.5 million,” Krenzel said.

Library Director Andrea Londensky told the council that because the project is being handled in separate phases, they cannot know how much it will cost until it has gone out to bid. She said that she and fellow library staff and board members have worked to keep the project as inexpensive as possible by identifying the library’s needs early in the process.

“We have tried to give you the best value for your money at the lowest cost,” Londensky said.

Kahse told the Sentinel that the cost of constructing parking on the site may be significant, since it is on uneven ground.

“It is not going to be cheap to expand the parking,” Kahse said, “and it is going to add to the cost of this. The mayor and council should have asked the people in town if they wanted to go ahead with this.”

With electric rates predicted to rise and work needed at the borough’s high school, residents are mindful of how their tax dollars are being spent, Kahse said. He added that the project manager hired by the governing body Monday will be paid $140 per hour.

Kahse said he would like to see a more inclusive cost figure that takes everything into account, rather than solely the construction costs.

“Four buildings have been renovated in the last eight or nine years, and we never do find out what these buildings cost,” Kahse said. “The people in town have gotten wise to the difference between construction cost and project cost.”

Some residents only became aware of this when the bond was advertised in the newspaper, Kahse said, and they only had a few days to collect signatures for the petition, since there is a set timeline from the date of publication to challenge a bond ordinance.

Kahse said the borough needs to do a better job of prioritizing projects, adding that the library could have waited three or four years.

“People have to understand that this is not about [the residents who signed the petition] not supporting the library,” Kahse said. “That’s why we did not want a referendum not to spend any money on the library. We wanted to reduce the amount to $3 million and have that be a cap. Nobody is against the library. They do a wonderful job and it is nice to see volunteers [helping out], but we are trying to send a message to the mayor and council that the spending is going off the wall here. We have to get it under control.”

Razzano said the work needs to be done now so that the borough can avoid paying even more in the future.

“I have a lot of respect for Mr. Kahse,” Razzano said. “I know he is sincere. I just disagree with him.”

Londensky said the library has made every effort to be fiscally responsible.

“I just want to make it clear that there are construction costs, there are costs associated with moving us to another location, which, by the way, they have done with every building they have [renovated] in town,” Londensky said. “We are just asking for the same thing.”

The petition is more about other issues and less about the library, Londensky said.

“This petition was quite a surprise for us,” Londensky said. “We never saw it coming. We have done our due diligence on this process, we looked at everything not once, but twice; we tried to be honest about it, because we want people to trust us on this issue.”

The petition, she said, “has become an umbrella for a variety of discontent for how the projects in the borough and the spending in the borough have been managed. And I think that we are collateral damage.”