By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The Montclair Public Library would see $100,000 more than slated in a municipal budget proposed a month ago, and taxpayers wouldn’t see as high of a municipal tax increase as expected under amendments made to the spending plan at a May 4 Township council meeting.
Library officials will now review the plan, to determine what level of services they might be able to restore — with funding still hundreds of thousands of dollars below pre-pandemic levels.
Mayor Sean Spiller said however that the library funding increase comes with the contingency that the library’s Bellevue Avenue branch, shuttered since last year’s coronavirus lockdowns, be opened “as soon as possible.”
In the amendments to the budget presented May 4, township officials were able to cut $471,100 in police vehicles, a rent control officer, police body cameras and election costs compared to a version introduced April 6. The next public hearing, and a possible final vote, will be May 18.
Last month, the Montclair Township Council introduced a $93.79 million budget that would have resulted in a 2.48% increase in the municipal portion of a property owner’s tax bill — the first increase in three years. The average homeowner with a home assessed at $600,000 would have seen a $114 increase on the municipal portion of his or her tax bill.
With the amended budget carrying just below a 2% increase in municipal taxes, that homeowner would instead see an increase of $93, paying about $4,791 in municipal taxes. The tax levy, amount to be raised by taxes, was lowered by $291,400 to $56.7 million.
At an April 6 council meeting, township chief financial officer Padmaja Rao said at the time the budget reflected only a $78,886 increase in spending over the 2020 budget, but it also reflected a $3 million loss in revenue due to the pandemic, causing a shortfall. She didn’t update those figures at the May 4 presentation.
Specifically, the newest version of the budget cuts the purchase of police vehicles from four to three, and although body cameras will still be purchased they can be paid for over a few years. Because a rent control ordinance passed last year is being held up from implementation due to a lawsuit by landlords who want to force the matter to a ballot question, a rent control officer and related expenses were struck from the budget. It also reduces the appropriation for a special election on rent control — the possible outcome of that lawsuit — by $80,000. Spiller said if a referendum does indeed take place, it could be held during the general election.
The new version of the budget adds another $80,000 to recreation, for utilities at Clary Arena, as well as the $100,000 for the library.
By state statute, public libraries are required to a minimum level of support — this year in Montclair, $2,680,152 — based on the town’s property tax base. The budget amendments introduced May 4 go beyond that requirement and appropriate about another $419,848, bringing the total to $3.1 million.
It’s $100,000 more than expected a month ago, but still about $400,000 below the amount the library was working with in a temporary budget earlier this year, or the level the library had been funded before the coronavirus pandemic set in. In 2020, the township cut library spending by more than $500,000 from that year’s original budget. The library was closed for seven months. Some in-person services resumed in October at the main branch on South Fullerton Avenue. That same month, 21 staff members were let go.
Library trustees last month sent the township council a letter proposing a $128,000 increase from the plan introduced in April. Without it, they said, the library could hold on to its existing 21 full-time and five part time employees, and keep the main branch open 35 hours a week — four weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and one weekday from 12 to 7 p.m. But Bellevue would remain shuttered.
With the $128,000, Library Director Peter Coyl said at the time, the Bellevue branch could open 18 hours a week. The main library could open another 24 hours, allowing for three evenings and weekend service starting in July. The funds would also support hiring eight new part-timers and cost-of–living adjustments for employees, Coyl said.
Coyl said he was grateful to the council for increasing the budget by $100,000, adding that staff would be looking at the numbers over the next week and to see what they mean for services.
“We are happy the township has provided additional funding over what was originally proposed and look forward to providing more in person services to our users,” he added.
Residents who called in support of more funding for the library said they hoped the additional funding would allow for the children’s rooms in both branches to reopen, and allow for weekend hours. Only the first floor of the main branch is currently open.
Resident Francesca Elms suggested to the council that more funding might be made available after the town receives the $3.79 million it expects from the American Rescue Plan later in the year.
A handful of residents called in to reprimand the council and officials for what they called a lack of transparency of the budget process, stating that budget could be better displayed on the township website, and that all departments should have the opportunity to present their respective budgets rather than just the nine departments did at the April 6 council meeting.
The municipal budget accounts for about a quarter of a homeowner’s total tax bill. Taxpayers also pay for school, county and library costs that are set separately.”