November 19, 2017

For Second Time in Less Than a Year, New Jersey Library Fights to Stay Open

The Cumberland County Library in Bridgeton, New Jersey, is fighting — once again — for its life.

The Board of Chosen Freeholders, the county’s legislative branch, has informed the library’s 14 employees to prepare for layoffs and the library’s possible closure in FY12 (which begins in January), or, at best, another sharp cut to the library’s already truncated budget.

“We faced closure twice this year already,” said Jean Edwards, the library’s director. “In March, the freeholders announced that the library had been removed from the budget [for FY11], and we received a notice from personnel that everyone was slated for layoffs,” she said.

An outcry from the community saved the library, but not a good part of its budget: in May, the freeholders cut the library’s operating budget in half, to $400,000. The library, which has a service population of about 156,000 and, according to Edwards, has about 5500 visitors coming through its doors every month, had to use its $150,000 rainy day fund and a $30,000 state grant to stay in business. The result was no bookmobile service (driver was laid off), most of the book and film budget was gone as well as regular children’s programming.

The county library is falling below the required maintenance of effort level as defined by state law, Edwards said. She also said the library was not meeting staffing, hours, and collection requirements monitored by the New Jersey State Library and which factor into state aid decisions.

“One option that the county seems to be considering is cutting back the hours and staff further,” Edwards said. “I have been directed by the county administrator to prepare a schedule for a 40 hour week,” she said.

The county is facing a $10 million deficit, and recent elections tilted the freeholders to a slim (4-3) Republican majority. Republicans campaigned in favor of closing the library as a cost saving move, according to local reports. However, a committee has been charged with coming up with a transition plan, and its members have met with the directors of other libraries in Cumberland County to gauge the implications.

“No decision has been made,” Mary Gruccio told the Press of Atlantic City. Gruccio is an assistant superintendent for the Vineland Public School District and the only Republican to win a freeholder seat in the recent election, but her victory created the GOP majority. “Maybe there may be ways for us to revive it. We’re waiting to get feedback. We want to do the right thing, and are taking our time and looking at it,” she said.

Edwards said there is no definite timeline at the moment.

Library advocates say the potential closure of the county library would exacerbate an already onerous condition in Cumberland County, which is one of the state’s poorest counties with 16.4 percent of the population below the poverty line, and it suffers from accompanying high unemployment and illiteracy rates.

“If anything Cumberland County needs more libraries rather than less,” said Irene Percelli, director of Millville Public Library, which is one of the county’s three municipal libraries. The other two are the Vineland Public Library and the Bridgeton Public Library. Their directors could not be reached for comment.

“Services were lost but the staff, despite the constant cloud of layoffs, is dedicated to fulfilling the mission of the county library, to offer residents the right to read and learn,” Edwards said. ” It is more important than ever to protect the library for the future — for the fortunate and less fortunate,” she said.

Patrons would have to rely on the three municipal libraries if the county library were to close, but Percelli said that Cumberland County, despite New Jersey’s population density, has many of the challenging characteristics of a rural area with long travel times between libraries and a digital divide.

“The closest library to us is 8.5 miles away,” Percelli said. “And a lot of people do not have Internet access at home. We only have 16 computers. How can we accommodate that kind of load?” she said.

“A lot of our patrons can afford public transportation but not their own transportation,” Edwards said. “And it’s over an hour by bus to Vineland.”

In addition, to help absorb the cost of serving patrons who no longer would be able to access the county library’s services, the municipal libraries would likely have to begin assessing a $50 non-resident fee, Edwards said.

At present, residents of townships in Cumberland County support only the county library, but any county resident can use any of the three municipal libraries without having to pay a fee thanks to the Cumberland Libraries United System (CLUES), which is a resource sharing network created in 1990 that instituted a county-wide library card and a joint online catalog. Over 104,078 Cumberland County residents hold CLUES library cards, according to Edwards.

“We have reciprocal borrowing at this point, but, if we close, the municipal libraries will be burdened by people coming from outside their municipalities,” Edwards said.

The county library is the administrator and headquarters of the CLUES system, which means it manages most of the technology infrastructure for the eight CLUES libraries as well as the federal E-rate discounts.

Freeholder Sam Fiocchi, the county government’s liaison to the library, told the DailyJournal.com that he hasn’t made a decision yet but he has raised questions about the library.

“A lot of people in Vineland don’t even know there is a county library,” Fiocchi told the Journal. “They say, ‘I pay taxes for my library in Vineland, and I pay taxes for a county library as well?'” Fiocchi has only attended three of nine library commission meetings this year, the Journal reported.

Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, told the Press of Atlantic City, that the remaining three libraries likely could not handle the added volume of users.

“I’m just really stressed that they think they could do this again,” Tumulty, a former Cumberland County Library employee, told the Press. “That would really be devastating. Most of those libraries are very small, and very limited in what they could do.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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