The Middletown Library Board will meet at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 19 at the Library’s main branch on 55 New Monmouth Road. The meeting is open to the public. If you care about your Library, you will not want to miss this opportunity to help shape its future as service cuts loom. See the meeting agenda here.
A lot has gone on with regard to our Library over the last two years. In 2011, under pressure to do so, the Library Board agreed to transfer $499,947 of Library funds to the Township. That was followed in mid-2012 by an unexpected, and potentially excessive, increase of several hundred thousand in the amount charged by the Township for services it handles on the Library’s behalf. There were also significant changes to the Library Board’s membership this year.
The Library’s primary source of funding comes from its municipal appropriation. The minimum funding level, established by law, is based on equalized valuations for properties in the Township. The municipal appropriation is $3,470,977 for 2013 and has declined almost $700,000 since 2009 in line with reduced property values. Prior to the 2011 transfer of funds to the Township, the Library had about $1.3 million in reserves. That may sound like a lot, but it is clear how quickly revenue reductions and expense increases can change the Library’s financial picture. Reserves are necessary to maintain the level of services from year to year, and are also set aside for capital improvements. I am not sure of the amount of reserves available now. It may be a few hundred thousand, but that is hardly enough if funding levels continue to drop and extraordinary expenses – such as replacement of aging air conditioning and heating units – arise.
As mentioned above, the Township handles certain functions for the Library, mainly payroll, benefits, and insurance coverages. The Library reimburses the Township for these “chargebacks”, a common arrangement for many towns. For 2012, the Township significantly increased the amount of the chargeback for the year by $338,493, representing more than a 30% increase from the prior year, as spelled out in the following letter to the Library Board this June:
My review of the 2012 chargeback analysis uncovered significant overcharges for certain line items. For a detailed explanation, see the letter I wrote on this topic: http://archive.org/details/DivisionOfLocalGovernmentServicesLetter
It is important to scrutinize the 2012 chargeback calculation because inaccuracies may perpetuate into future years. Unfortunately, the Library trustees quickly approved the chargeback without asking questions or demanding answers, even after errors were brought to their attention.
The Township determines the chargeback amount annually and removes that amount from the Library’s municipal appropriation monies under the Township’s control. (This year some monies also came from the Library’s other funds, like fines & copier fees, to pay the bill.) Historically, the Library has little say in the determination of the chargeback, has never not paid the chargeback, and has received little supporting documentation for any year to verify the accuracy of the amount charged. In spite of that, Township officials are now claiming that the Library did not pay its share of pension costs for one or more prior years. This accusation is unfair since the chargeback calculation was not within the Library’s control. Further, if a line item breakdown of costs was not provided for prior years – and I don’t believe one was – the Library would have no way of knowing what costs were included in the total charge. Regardless, it is not clear to me what this issue has to do with the 2012 chargeback calculation, unless the intent is to justify excessive charges this year, which only leads to more questions about the accuracy of charges in prior years.
Something else I would like to shed light on are the Library employee raises that Township Committee members have been critical of. The 6% raises were per the 2007 library employees’ contract, running 2007-2009. The contract broke ground in that it included a contribution toward health benefits of 2% of salary. Library employees were the first in the Township to start paying toward their health benefits, ahead of police unions who began paying 1.5% in 2010 and other Township employees who began contributing 1.5% in 2011. The raises were also intended to bring library salaries to competitive levels in order to attract qualified individuals. Library employees received no raise in 2010, 1% in 2011, and 1% in 2012, and they continue to pay 2% toward health benefits, still more than other employees in the Township.
It is unfortunate that out Library and its dedicated Director, Susan O’Neal, have been the target of harsh and unfair criticism by Township officials. Our Library has been run successfully for many years under Ms. O’Neal’s leadership, keeping up with changing technology and providing programs that serve residents’ needs. Monies have been well managed and savings had been accumulated as required to ensure ongoing operations. But in spite of that, the Library – its Director – has been accused of not being able to live within a budget. That is absurd. We are very lucky to have Ms. O’Neal, who is regarded as being at the top of her field and who had the high honor last year of serving as president of the New Jersey Library Association.
Ms. O’Neal had the additional responsibility this year of providing training for 8 new board members -- 7 are new Township appointees and 1 is the School Superintendent's pick. The new appointments were for various reasons, including term expirations, resignations, and an increase in the size of the Board. The Board consisted of 7 seats prior to 2012. The Township Committee added two seats to the Library Board this year, increasing membership from 7 to 9. Thus, the Board was re-structured in a short amount of time.
In response to criticism over political interference in Library operations, Township elected officials have said that the Library is part of Township and that they would not do anything to harm it. However, I don’t think anyone can argue that the siphoning of nearly $500K in 2011 and the excessive chargeback in 2012 have harmed the Library, already strained by declining revenues and now facing big cuts that include branch closures, reductions in operating hours, and layoffs.
I hope this post helps residents to better understand the issues that may be addressed at Wednesday night’s meeting.