From left, Councilman Bob Russo, Mayor Sean Spiller, Friends of the Bellevue Avenue Library President Cordelia Siporin, Friends member Edward Robin, Deputy Mayor William Hurlock, Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings and Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill cut the ribbon at the July 6 Bellevue Avenue library reopening ceremony. (TALIA WIENER / STAFF)

By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Over the last several months, the debate over funding Montclair’s public library had at times been contentious — with one key supporter criticizing officials for a “slap in the face” when they rolled out a proposed budget. The process ultimately left the library about $400,000 short of its prepandemic funding, with several services still cut back.

But Tuesday, community members and township officials who’d been on all sides of that debate gathered at the library’s Bellevue Avenue branch, celebrating the reopening of a building that library officials warned had been at risk of remaining shuttered during budget talks this year. Bellevue reopened with limited service on June 8, after Township Council members agreed to boost their original draft of a 2021 budget for the library by $100,000 — a compromise measure they said was contingent on getting the branch in Upper Montclair back in service.

“This is a microcosm of us as a whole community,” Mayor Sean Spiller said at Tuesday’s event, which included a ribbon-cutting and a puppet show. “These are the spaces where people come together, yes, to read a book, to jump on a computer, but more importantly, to bring their sons and daughters, to bring family.”

The event was organized by Montclair Library Friends and Friends of the Bellevue Avenue Library.

Both the Bellevue branch and the library’s main branch shut down March 14, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The main branch, on South Fullerton Avenue, reopened for some in-person services seven months later, but an uncertain budget situation left Bellevue in limbo. Employees had been furloughed for 27 weeks in 2020 before 21 part-time staffers were let go in October. In recent weeks, the library has begun refilling some positions.

From left, Adriana O’Toole, Carylmead Eggleston and Bettine Avenia were in the crowd gathered at the July 6 Bellevue Avenue library reopening ceremony. (TALIA WIENER / STAFF)

The Bellevue branch originally opened in 1914 and remained open until 2010, during a previous round of budget cuts. It reopened in 2011. Friends of the Bellevue Avenue Library President Cordelia Siporin said the closure during the past year was the longest in the library’s history.

“The reason for the Bellevue Avenue library’s most recent closure is unfortunately well known to us,” Siporin said, referencing the pandemic.

COVID-19 claimed the lives of library volunteers as well, she said. The Friends group donated $1,000 to the library in honor of volunteer Anita Geffinger and others who died during the pandemic. 

“Anita was a true powerhouse and the kind of person I hope to be someday when I’m older,” Siporin said. “Always enjoying herself, throwing fully into everything she ever did, lifting heavy boxes of children’s books at our book sales, somehow running circles around library volunteers less than half her age.”

Siporin was also one of the performers in the puppet show, along with her husband, Friends Vice President Jonathan McDevitt. 

Friends of the Bellevue Avenue Library President Cordelia Siporin performed a puppet show during the library’s July 6 reopening ceremony. (TALIA WIENER / STAFF)

In 2020, the Township Council slashed about $500,000 from a planned $3.5 million allotment for the library when the pandemic hit — taking funding to the lowest levels seen in two decades. The council originally proposed a budget for 2021 nearly even with the reduced 2020 version, even though library officials had said they were hoping for an amount at least in the neighborhood of the pre-pandemic figures.

In an April guest column for Montclair Local, Siporin said the budget’s early-April introduction during National Library Week, with the funding still at 2020-like levels, “feels like a slap in the face to the library lovers and library users of Montclair, and I think the citizens, voters and taxpayers of our town deserve much better than this.” 

She said in the column the decision was “jaw-dropping” and criticized the “township’s apparent forgetfulness over what an extremely unpopular decision” the 2010 budget cuts and closure had been.

Library trustees sent the Township Council a letter in April proposing a $128,000 increase from the plan originally introduced in 2021. The council ultimately agreed to up its budget by $100,000.

Under the state’s “third of a mil” funding formula, Montclair is required to provide the library with at least $33 for every $100,000 of assessed property value — which in 2021 amounts to $2,680,152, or $51,383 higher than in 2020. The remainder of the funding is at the council’s discretion.

“It’s not just an appropriation in my mind, it’s an investment,” Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill, a Montclair resident, said Tuesday. “We’ll do whatever we can to make sure that this jewel in our community remains and continues to be a place not only for now, but for future generations of Montclairians.”

Limits remain on service. For now, Bellevue is open for four hours only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The main library is open weekdays, but browsing remains restricted to the first floor, and computers are still off-limits. Additional hours for the library are expected to be announced soon, a June 30 library press release said. 

During the run-up to a budget, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock made statements disputing the suggestion that funding for the library would come up short of expectations. On Feb. 16, at a Township Council meeting, he said, “I know we had asked the library what they needed to do, we didn’t get an answer, we asked again, we got a half-answer. Got a couple of emails after that, and we met the number we were asked to, period.”

But Tuesday, he focused on what the Bellevue Avenue library means to him — personally and professionally. 

“My two kids would come here. We would walk from my house over by Applegate Farm, come up here, take out some books, get a hot chocolate and walk home,” Hurlock said. “I am looking forward to these children that are here today doing exactly what we did when my kids were young.”

Hurlock said he has held 32 First Ward meetings in the Bellevue Avenue building over the past eight years, and is hoping to resume the meetings in September.

Staff and customers are still required to wear masks and observe 6 feet of physical distance while inside the library’s buildings, a decision the website said is made “out of respect for our younger patrons who are not yet vaccinated and are required to continue to follow these guidelines.”

There is contactless service offered for patrons who are unable or unwilling to comply with the safety measures set by the library.

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