Referendum scheduled on closing of library


"This is an opportunity for a bigger, better library with more than we could ever offer." — Anthony LaMantia Mayor “This is an opportunity for a bigger, better library with more than we could ever offer.” — Anthony LaMantia Mayor JAMESBURG — Borough officials adopted an ordinance last week that will ask voters’ permission to close the town’s public library.

Mayor Anthony LaMantia and members of the Borough Council scheduled the referendum to determine whether the library should be shut down due to the state-mandated rising costs of the operation. The public question will be on the general election ballot Nov. 4.

If the referendum is approved and the library is closed, borough residents would be able to use the Monroe Township Public Library, located at Perrineville and Schoolhouse roads, based on an interlocal agreement between the two towns.

The council’s Aug. 13 vote to hold a referendum comes on the heels of years of a sometimes bitter debate between library advocates and town officials who say there is no longer room for it in the municipal budget. Both sides agree, however, that the root of the problem is the state, which essentially requires the town to spend more on the library each year, while placing a cap on overall municipal spending.

A state-mandated library funding formula holds that the town must give its library one-third of a mill (a mill is one-tenth of a cent) per $100 of assessed value in the municipality. That has forced Jamesburg to increase its library expenditures by nearly 15 percent some years. The increase amounted to 8.9 percent last year.

Officials, finding themselves squeezed between that law and the 4-percent cap on budget increases, have sought help from state legislators in recent years, but have not been given any relief from the mandates.

Carole Hetzell, president of the Jamesburg library board of trustees, said the state came up with the funding formula, more than a century ago, as a way of keeping politicians from shortchanging their libraries in order to keep taxes low.

“The law needs to be tweaked,” she said. “They should give [library] trustees a right to bargain with the council.”

Hetzell said the town has painted a picture of unavoidable 15 percent increases in library spending, while the library budget increased only 8.9 percent last year, and will probably rise by even less this year. She said the library has never raised its budget by 15 percent in a single year.

The mayor and council considered holding a referendum to close the library last year, but found room in the budget after library advocates campaigned against the referendum. This year, the council saw no way around the ballot question.

Hetzell said the borough is being “pennywise and pound foolish” by trying to discontinue the library. She said it is the only service in town that is available to residents of all ages, free of charge. Also, she said closing something that many people walk to and from contradicts the ongoing efforts to revitalize the borough and bring more people to the downtown area.

The library budget is about $185,000 this year, up from $170,000 last year. It is estimated that the figure will exceed $200,000 next year.

LaMantia and council members said the Monroe Township library provides more resources and services than the Jamesburg facility does, especially for schoolchildren.

“In this day and age, you have to give up a little in order to get a lot,” LaMantia said. He noted that far more people showed up at library discussions in prior years than they did for last week’s public hearing, “Because we did not have an alternative then.”

The mayor stressed that the question of whether to close the library is not up to the governing body; it’s up to the residents to decide.

While LaMantia said the borough is able to control and make cuts to the budgets of other borough departments, but is powerless when it comes to the library, Hetzell argued that the town could still find other areas to cut. For example, she said the town should look to save money by sharing more services with other towns. She also questioned whether Jamesburg needs so many police officers or public works employees.

She said there will be an “aggressive campaign” to swing the November election in the library’s favor.

LaMantia said he personally feels it is a good idea to share the Monroe library, in part because of the greater resources there, but also because money will be saved.

“It’s up to date, larger, and a more modern library,” he said. “This is an opportunity for a bigger, better library with more than we could ever offer.”

Councilman John Longo Jr. said the shared services agreement with Monroe is estimated to save Jamesburg about $30,000 per year, which is significant for Jamesburg’s budget. The cost to Jamesburg for use of the Monroe library would be based on the number of borough residents who take out library cards.

Longo stressed that the decision to keep the library is up to voters.

“We’ll keep it open if you want to expend the money,” he said.

Longo said the borough did speak with the library trustees about finding a way to reduce the spending increases, but state library officials would not allow such an arrangement.

He said Jamesburg officials asked legislators to come with a bill that would allow small towns to keep library increases within the 4 percent range, but the bill stalled at the committee stage.

“We were lied to and duped by the state,” Longo said.

The council has made cuts in other areas of the budget, such as garbage pickup, to make room for prior library increases and ease the burden on taxpayers.

While LaMantia said officials would work to come up with safe walkways from Jamesburg to the Monroe library, as well as bus service, Hetzell said the sidewalks through the park would not be safe for anyone, especially children, to walk alone. She noted it is also dangerous to walk along a road with no shoulder, such as Perrineville Road.