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FILE PHOTO The Bellevue Avenue branch of the Montclair Public Library.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

In addition to dealing with closures and furloughs during the pandemic, the Montclair Public Library is now facing over a half-million-dollar funding cut for operating costs, resulting in layoffs. 

Earlier this year, the township informed library officials that they would not receive the full amount of additional funding they had requested, forcing the library to lay off  21 hourly employees in October, said library Director Peter Coyl. 

After being closed for nearly seven months, some in-person services resumed on Oct. 19 at the main branch, such as limited browsing on the first floor and some computer access. 

Under New Jersey state law, public libraries must receive at least a  third of a mill  in funding —  meaning one-third of a tenth of a cent for every dollar of assessed property in the library’s host municipality. Under the third-of-a-mill formula, the library is entitled to receive $2,600,327 in local funding, which is derived from property taxes. Municipalities may provide additional funding beyond that. 

Instead of the expected $887,141 in additional funding approved by the township in late March prior to the shutdown, library officials were informed in April that they would only receive $355,221, a funding cut of $531,920.

That brought the library’s total budget from the anticipated $3,515,910 down to $2,983,990, which is close to what it was 20 years ago. 

Coyl said library employees had been furloughed for 27 weeks as a result of the pandemic and were eligible for CARES Act funding. But the cut in operating costs means that the money was not there to keep the 21 employees on. 

In October, the library made the decision to lay off the hourly employees. Since library employees rotate between the main library on South Fullerton Avenue and the Bellevue Avenue branch library, the staff cut affects both locations. 

The library saw its circulation numbers decline steeply when it closed due to the pandemic. It did, however, see an increase in usage of e-books, audiobooks and online databases. 

The library is currently unable to host in-person events such as author talks, plays, concerts or lectures, and groups are unable to rent out the conference rooms, which translates to a loss in revenue from space rentals. 

In addition to the loss in funds the library has lost out on a grant opportunity. The township would not commit to matching funds in order for the library to apply for the first round of funding from the Library Construction Bond Act. 

Township officials did not return a request for comment on the matter on Tuesday. The grant might have been a funding source for several planned renovations at the libraries, including ADA improvements and a new addition at the Bellevue Avenue branch, which has remained closed. A reopening date has not yet been announced for the branch.

Coyl said it remains to be seen what the budget situation will ultimately mean for the library renovations, whether they will be able to go forward as planned and, if so, to what extent. The library has an architect on retainer, but a consultation with the architect would still cost money. 

The library is preparing to send out mailers for its annual appeal to residents.

Next week, the library will have its first meeting with the township to discuss next year’s budget process. 

“I always remain hopeful,” Coyl said. “But I’m also a pragmatist.” 

The library has a back-to-work policy through which laid-off employees will be hired back if the library is in a position to do so in the future, and if the employees wish to return. 

Morale is currently good among the staff, however, Coyl said. 

“I would say that generally our staff are upbeat. Obviously, this has been a very difficult time for them,” he said.

The pandemic has made it a dangerous time to deal with the public, and a concern for staff is that some library patrons refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing.