After hearing from passionate supporters of the township library branches at a public meeting Wednesday night, the 9-member Middletown Township Library Board of Trustees unanimously decided to postpone a vote on the 2013 budget that could have shut the Navesink, Lincroft and Bayshore branches next week.
The issue will be discussed at the next public meeting on Feb. 20, after a newly formed committee takes a crack at alternative solutions, such as private fundraising, volunteers, reduced hours, or alliances with the Board of Education.
But the very real possibility that a yearly $300,000 shortfall would not be easily raised by other means was reflected in a second motion to close the branches on March 1 "unless some other action is taken by the board." It was passed 6-3.
"I'm not happy about this. This is the worst day in my professional career, to be perfectly honest," said Library Director Susan O'Neal, a non-voting member on the board, in comments to the room full of 100 people, some of them children. "The fact that you came out, and wanted to talk about it, and there's a promise we might come up with something --- I'll make it happen. I'll do my very best."
At the board's invitation, three citizens stepped forward to volunteer time to explore solutions with the board's Finance Committee and Director O'Neal. They are Michael Winchell for the Navesink branch, Melanie Elmiger for the Lincroft Branch, and Bernadette Massey of Port Monmouth, for the Bayshore branch.
O'Neal said the board had discussed the serious budget problems at board meetings in recent months, and came to the painful decision to close the branches on Dec. 3
Before coming to this critical point, the library system's fiscal problems have been festering for the past few years, said O'Neal.
In 2010, the board started transferring money from the reserves to shore up its own operating budget.
In 2011, the board transferred $500,000 to the towship in a chargeback to make up for pension costs -- money that O'Neal said was earmarked to upgrade the aging Lincroft library.
The library's buget is tied to the township's fortunes, and has shrunk with the downturn of assessed taxable property values. In 2009 the budget was $4.1 million. Now, in 2013, it is projected to be $3.4 million. "We had to make up a decline in our funding -- and an increase in expenses -- at the same time," said O'Neal. "The impact has been devastating."
The effect of Superstorm Sandy on the township's tax base is unknown, but not expected to make anything better.
Due to attrition, the main library's staff of 40 is already down "six or seven" people, which would make it difficult to maintain the same level of staffing at the branches with fewer employees, O'Neal said.