A sign outside the main branch of the library on Sunday, Nov. 14. (Courtesy Jennifer Wroblewski)

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Nov. 15, 6 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect statements by Montclair Councilman Peter Yacobellis that money the township has withheld from the public library would be released, and that an agreement township officials drafted to give the municipality more control over the library was being revised. 

Dozens of people gathered outside the Montclair Public Library Sunday to protest the township’s recent forensic audit of the institution, and the Township Council’s plan to make any discretionary funding for the library contingent on an agreement that would give the township administration more power over its operations.

Monday night, the mayor and council were set to present and vote on the agreement. But Township Councilman Peter Yacobellis said late Monday afternoon the council’s finance committee — Mayor Sean Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Councilman David Cummings — had revised the agreement as recently as that morning. 

Even after 6 p.m., he said in a message sent to some constituents and provided to Montclair Local, most of the council hadn’t yet received the revised version. He said he’d advance or support a motion to postpone voting on the agreement.

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Montclair Local has not yet seen the new version of the agreement.

Yacobellis said he thought the earlier draft of the agreement was “an outsized reaction to some concerns raised by some of my colleagues and our staff” and that without a better understanding of what his colleagues are seeking, “I cannot even consider supporting it.”

Earlier this year, the township approved a budget for the library of $419,848 above and beyond the statutory amount it’s required to provide by state law. Those payments come quarterly, but the township hasn’t yet sent payments for the third or fourth quarters. Yacobellis said Monday the third quarter payment was being released, and that he’s requesting the fourth quarter payment be issued as well.

Audit and agreement

The agreement previously reviewed by the council had been suggested by the auditors, who say they found “areas for improvement” including more than half a million dollars in overstated expenses. 

Consultants Bob Benecke of Benecke Economics and David Gannon of PKF O’Connor Davies, who reported on the $31,500 audit at an Oct. 19 council meeting, said the library should come up with a baseline budget only for the funding state law requires it to receive — even though Montclair has historically provided hundreds of thousands of dollars past that amount. Any spending above the statutory requirement should be presented separately, with a detailed analysis to aid in transparency, they said.

Executive Library Director Peter Coyl told Montclair that the township audited a draft budget “that was clearly marked draft” and that some of the auditors’ notes were not factual.

On Sunday, Nov. 14, about a dozen residents gathered outside the library to show their support and protest a recent forensic audit by the township of the library’s finances. The protest was initiated by resident Eileen Birmingham. (Courtesy Jennifer Wroblewski)

In a Nov. 10 memo to the council in response to the audit, the library’s trustees stated: “The most significant outcome of the audit, as the auditors acknowledged during the Oct. 19 meeting but not in their report, is that they did not uncover any improprieties, undue transactions, fraud, abuse or wrongdoing.”

By state statute, municipalities are required to provide their libraries with a certain minimum level of support based on their property tax bases — known as the “third of a mil” formula, where a mil is 1/10th of a cent. In Montclair this year, that worked out to $2,680,152. The council ultimately approved $419,848 in additional funds, with $100,000 contingent on reopening the library’s Bellevue Avenue branch, which had been closed since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The earlier draft of the agreement was set to run from Nov. 1 through October of 2027. It states no funds above state-required minimum will be granted until the agreement is signed. 

It lists several conditions to be met for the library to be considered for additional funding.

It would require separate budgets for the state-required funding and any extra funding asked of the township, and says the library must send the township a detailed draft budget by Oct. 31 each year. It would require the library to provide the township’s chief financial officer with a report of budgeted and actual revenues and disbursements, and a cash flow statement in a time and manner stipulated by the CFO. It says anticipated revenues in a library budget should not exceed the amount received in the prior year.

Protesters outside the library on Nov. 14. Courtesy Jennifer Wroblewski

It would require the library to provide “equal access to free public library services to all residents of the service areas of both library branches.” 

Any changes to hours, programs or staffing would have to be presented to the township manager, and no significant changes in hours or closures could be made without prior township approval.  

The library would have to pursue all available grants before asking for additional funds, the draft of the earlier version of the agreement says.

And the library would have to provide “consistent plans, programs, policies and procedures in the operation, maintenance and development of the library service throughout the township.”

Coyl said the verbiage of the earlier version of the agreement pertaining to “equal access” and “consistent” offerings between branches is very broad. He said that because the Bellevue branch is not Americans with Disabilities Act accessible, having programs scheduled at the library’s main branch means they are accessible to all.

The library has asked the township council in the past two years to apply for matching grants through the New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act to make the branch ADA accessible, but the township didn’t provide the local funding for the match in its budgets, he said.

The $419,848 the council approved for the library beyond the statutory amount was to be spread across four quarterly payments, Coyl said. But so far, the library has received just one payment of $174,209, in the second quarter, he said.  No payments for the third or fourth quarters have come through, so the library is currently missing $245,638 in funds, he said. 

For 2022, the statutory amount the library will receive has risen to about $2.8 million, but a budget presented to the town manager last week also requests $385,792 in discretionary aid, Coyl said. That would make for a total of slightly under $3.2 million, compared to the $3.1 million total approved for 2021.

The requested discretionary funds will allow the main branch to add more evening hours and to be open on Sunday, he said. The Bellevue branch would increase hours from the current 18 to 44 hours.

In the library trustees’ response to the audit, they also countered some of its findings.

The trustees say the auditors claimed there were no cost-savings from closing the Bellevue Avenue branch last year, but that the library operated with $500,000 less than in its approved 2020 budget, in part by moving some staff and resources from Bellevue Avenue to the main branch.

They say the auditors faulted them for not saving money by changing from in-person to virtual events, without accounting for extra costs involved, such as adapting programs to virtual platforms and training staff to conduct them online. Staffers had to be assigned to respond to a higher volume of email and online inquiries, including signing up a record number of new library card holders, “which requires significantly more time to do virtually than simply responding orally to questions asked in person,” the trustees said. And the library had to buy personal protective equipment for staffers still on site, the trustees said.

The trustees said they acknowledge the audit’s finding that they kept paying a contracted cleaning service while buildings were closed because “even with limited staff in the building on a weekly basis, regular cleaning was necessary,” especially during the early pandemic, when there was greater concern about transmission through objects and surfaces.

They dispute the auditors’ findings that the library didn’t respond “in a timely manner” to furlough and lay off employees — citing the furlough of 23 part-time employees in April of 2020, “which we believe was a very timely response, implemented less than a month after the library first closed due to the pandemic.”

The trustees dispute the auditors’ assertion that the library didn’t apply for an American Library  Association COVID relief grant — saying they applied but were rejected. And they say the auditors were wrong to say the library should have applied for payroll protection plan loans available to nonprofit libraries, because the Montclair library is a government entity, and not a nonprofit organization.

If the council approves a resolution on Monday authorizing a version of the agreement, the library would still need to enter into the agreement before it could be executed.

An earlier version of this story described attendance at a protest outside the Montclair Library as “about a dozen people,” based on an account of an attendee. There were dozens of people at the protest. A caption on a photo for this story has also been updated to correctly acknowledge the name of the protest’s organizer; an earlier version included an abridged name she uses on social media.