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The Montclair Public Library.
ERIN ROLL / STAFF

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair Township Council has tabled action on a funding agreement that sought more control over the public library, and that threatened to withhold any funds beyond those required by state law if library officials didn’t sign on.

The move comes after some residents and library administrators protested a draft of the agreement — saying it was a heavy-handed response to overblown or unfounded concerns about financial mismanagement. 

At the Monday, Nov. 15 council meeting, Mayor Sean Spiller announced the township had also released $245,638 in appropriated funds the library has been waiting for since August.

A draft of the agreement was made public at council’s Nov. 1 meeting as a discussion item, after consultants presented an audit of the library on Oct. 19. The text of the agreement says if the library’s trustees don’t sign on and adhere to its terms, the township won’t consider any funding for the library above and beyond the amount required by state law. 

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It was expected to be voted through as a resolution on Monday, but the library’s board of trustees, which is against the agreement, would still need to sign it for it to be executed.

But Mayor Sean Spiller opened the discussion suggesting that the matter be tabled after receiving emails from residents fighting for support of their library, dozens of whom gathered in protest on Sunday outside its main branch, and suggestions from the library board in the form of a memo countering many of the audit’s findings. Spiller said the “collaborative process” needed more time.

Spiller said the $31,000 audit was authorized due to two main issues. First was the closing of the Bellevue Avenue branch of the library during the pandemic, which he said “came as a surprise to all of us.” Second, Spiller said, the library couldn’t show it had saved any money after furloughing 23 part-time employees in April of 2020 — which library administrators flatly deny.  

“Those triggered the audit, which then came back with a number of recommendations for best practices,” Spiller said. 

On Sunday, dozens of residents gathered outside the library to show their support. The protest was initiated by resident Eileen Birmingham. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Wroblewski

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

Bob Benecke of Benecke Economics and David Gannon of PKF O’Connor Davies, who reported on the $31,500 audit at the Oct. 19 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 at least 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.

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

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.”

But many residents, including council members Lori Price Abrams and Peter Yacobellis, criticized the agreement as taking the legal power out of the hands of the board of trustees and giving too much oversight to the township’s administration. And they said the tone of the agreement — which would run from Nov. 1 of this year through October of 2027 — was threatening in nature. 

Price Abrams, Yacobellis and Councilman Bob Russo all said they were bothered by the threat to hold back funds beyond the state requirement. That concern was shared by library administrators, who questioned in the weeks leading up to Monday’s meeting why they had not received funds budgeted to the library and expected to be issued in the third and fourth quarters.

Funds held up

By state statute, municipalities are required to provide their libraries with a 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 this year approved another $419,848. Its initial plan was $100,000 less than that, but it agreed to increase the amount contingent on reopening of the Bellevue Avenue branch. 

Library officials said prior to the meeting those funds were to come in quarterly installments — but they hadn’t received any since the second quarter, and were waiting on the $245,638.

“Where is the money?” Russo asked.

Price Abrams questioned why the money was withheld during the negotiation of the agreement: “Was it a tactic to get their attention?”

Spiller said that there was a miscommunication with Chief Financial Officer Padmaja Rao, who was supposed to release the funds pending the receipt of financial documents — which Peter Coyl told Montclair Local had been received on Oct. 19. Township Manager Tim Stafford said the CFO will “wire the money in due course.”

The agreement also lists several conditions to be met for the library to be considered for additional funding.

It would have the library trustees submit 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.

The agreement 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 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.”

Price Abrams called the wording in the agreement “offensive, disrespectful and belligerent.” Russo, the longest-serving council member, said: “I have never heard of such an agreement in all my years of council.”

Coyl said the verbiage of the agreement pertaining to “equal access” and “consistent” offerings between branches is very broad. For instance, he said, because the Bellevue branch is not  Americans With Disabilities Act accessible, having programs scheduled at the library’s main branch is how the library makes them accessible to everyone.

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.

Disputed findings

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 the 23 part-time employees, “which we believe was a very timely response, implemented less than a month after the library first closed due to the pandemic.”

The trustees 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.

Libraries in New Jersey are semi-autonomous organizations, Coyl said. By state law, a library’s board of trustees is its governing body — deciding how it will use its buildings, setting its hours of operation and personnel policies, and preparing and controlling its budget. Coyl said the board can’t legally turn its power over hours or building closures over to the township.

Yacobellis said that he felt the agreement was an “outsized reaction” that would put the township at risk of legal action. He noted Montclair’s structure of government in which the mayor appoints the board of trustees, who then oversee the day-to-day operations of the library.

But Benecki told the council the township has the right to dictate hours and closures and access, especially when it comes to conditions for discretionary aid. 

Councilman David Cummings, who serves on the township financial committee with Spiller and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, said the agreement wasn’t intended as a way to take over the management of the library. 

Councilwoman Robin Schlager called for more transparency, asking for a timeline on what led up to the audit, and questioned why the audit document itself had not been made public.

Yacobellis agreed, saying “there are too many versions of the ‘truth.’”

One of the handful of residents who called to support the library said no one has discussed the emotional toll of the audit and the proposed agreement on the library staff.

Spiller said that the auditors have been given the board of trustees’ suggestions. The auditor and township administration will then come up with revisions. 

The library staff is moving forward with budgeting and programming for next year, Coyl told Montclair Local. 

“The library is grateful to our users who have voiced their support of the library and our services.  We appreciate the trust and faith they place in us. We look forward to continued conversations with the Township Council regarding adequate funding and hope that we can work towards a restoration of pre-pandemic level of funding,” 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 told Montclair Local. 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.

The funding for 2021 and the proposal for 2022 both include several hundred thousand dollars less in discretionary funds than the library received in the years before the pandemic.

“Fifteen years ago, the library had been funded 60% above state statute, and in 2019, 30% above the requirement. During COVID, the library received 13% and in 2021, 16%,” Price Abrams noted, adding she did not want the township to “slip into a space where we are not funding above the state statute.” 

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. 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.