Trenton, NJ, Mayor Tony Mack reopened the first of the city’s four closed library branches on April 30 – sort of.
The former Skelton branch of the Trenton Free Public Library is one of four branches that have been closed for budget reasons since August 2010, leaving only the main library open. So reopening them sounds like good news.
The catch is, the mayor is making an end run around the Trenton Free Public Library (TFPL) board and administration to reopen the “Mayor’s Learning Center Libraries” as not-exactly-libraries, though they still have library in the name. “We cannot be a library, so just look at this as a public building with books,” the Times of Trenton quoted Mack as saying. Under state law, when a town has a library board, all buildings used for the purposes of a library must be under the control of that board.
Even the books in the branches are really the property of the TFPL, and consist of older works that were duplicated in the main library’s holdings, TFPL director Kimberly Matthews told LJ. “We only had so much room in the main library so we brought over as much of the collection as we could. All the audiovisual and all books that had been purchased in the last couple of years and the majority of new reference” came to the main library, as well as most of the computers.
But the TFPL left “the older portion of the fiction collection, nonfiction and children’s collection” in the branches partly in hopes that they could be reopened, and partly because it lacked the resources to dispose of them through a public auction, as the law mandates. However, the learning centers won’t even know what books they have, as the catalog is, of course, at the TFPL.
The facilities are intended to be staffed largely by volunteers, but those volunteers won’t come from the Friends of the Library. “Since the Trenton Public Library is not involved in this project, neither is the Friends. Our mission is to support and promote TPL through fundraising and advocacy,” the Friends group told LJ. The city expects to hire about seven former employees from the Trenton Free Public Library to work as coordinators.
It’s unclear under whose auspices the coordinators will be running the non-libraries, since Councilman Zachary Chester told LJ the City Council hadn’t voted on any proposal.
Mack told the City Council at its May 1 meeting that he planned to cut the ribbon on the Briggs branch on Monday, May 7, but council members asked him to wait until the matter could be reviewed by the city’s legal department and new business administrator, according to the Times.
Public Not Thrilled By Un-Public Un-Libraries
Reactions to the Mayor’s Learning Center Libraries are, so far, not glowing. Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, released a statement condemning the mayor’s actions, which reads in part, “This unprecedented attempt to bypass the current legal structure for library services will divert much needed library resources to volunteer-run community centers that will lack both the ability to maintain or update those resources and the expertise with which to serve the public’s information needs…This proposal, however, fails to provide the residents of Trenton any assurance that they will receive the type of library service they need. A room full of books does not make a library.”
The mayor tried to spin the NJLA’s reaction as career self interest, saying “They’re trying to retain a certain level of importance based on their skill set, but the show must go on,” but reactions from those without livelihoods at stake have also been lukewarm at best.
“You can’t say you’re going to open libraries without consulting with the library director and the board of the library. Myself and several other council members are aware of that,” Councilman Chester told LJ. “If they are going to be libraries they should be run by the library board, our public library system. If they’re not, then the city needs to sell them.”
“I don’t know what to make of it,” the Times quoted Councilman George Muscha as saying. “I’m glad the library’s open, but there’s a lot of questions to be answered. During this whole project, he never came to council. Why? That’s got to send a red flag up. … I want the library open but there’s something wrong here. It smells. It smells bad.”
Trenton community blogger Kevin Moriarty even started a petition to, as he put it, “Stop the Zombie Libraries!”
By the Numbers
Mack said he expects the branches, which will operate from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays, to cost $30,000-$50,000 each per year. The Times reported that the TFPL had said it would need $845,000 to open the branches for 20 hours per week, and the Young Scholars Institute (YSI), a Trenton-based nonprofit learning center, estimated it would need $432,000 to run three of the branches for the same time period. The mayor had initially offered $350,000, according to the Times.
According to Matthews, the branches cost $311,000-$375,000 each to operate full time when they were open. However, those costs can’t necessarily be halved for half time operation, as certain expenses are the same regardless of the number of hours while others, such as insurance and software, were not costed out per branch but simply paid under the main library’s budget.
Funding for the centers is expected to come primarily from federal Community Development Block Grants, but Mack said that additional money could come from Trenton’s general fund. None of the city’s $46,956 in state aid can be spent on anything but the TFPL, nor can the Learning Center Libraries participate in statewide interlibrary loan, databases, or other State Library programs. State aid levels are also tied to local funding, Victoria Rosch, the associate state librarian of the New Jersey State Library, told LJ. But as TFPL is funded above the approximately $1.2 million minimum required by law, the municipality could theoretically cut the TFPL’s budget to fund the centers, provided the mayor obtained the City Council’s approval.
Even if it does so, however, it’s hard to see how the city could afford to do even minimal updating of its outdated reference works, considering that the YSI proposal, at double the money for one fewer branches, still only managed to allocate $60,000 for books, subscriptions, and even office supplies for three branches combined. (For comparison purposes, TFPL spent just under $238,000 on collection materials alone in 2009, down from a high of over $438,000 in 2004, though those numbers include the main library.)
The YSI plan also assumed that the city wouldn’t have to spend as much on database access because users would be able to connect to EBSCO through Mercer County, but that may not be the case. Julie Willmot, director of communications of Mercer County, told LJ, “Neither the City of Trenton nor Young Scholars Institute has approached Mercer County Library System or Mercer County Government officials regarding their plans for the city library.”
A History of Loss
As LJ reported, Trenton was first threatened with having to close the branches due to lack of funding in 2008, when director Matthews (then named Bray) was five months into her tenure with the city. However, she was able to delay the closure until the end of 2009 by working out a deal with the New Jersey state librarian, allowing Trenton to operate with 60 non-duplicated open hours at any branch, as opposed to the 60 hours at a single branch which are usually required.
The TFPL’s budget has dwindled from $5 million four years ago to $2.1 million now, Matthews told LJ. “It was not unfair. It was not anything that was not happening across the board,” she emphasized. “One third of the police department was laid off.” Compounding the impact of the economic downturn on the city’s tax revenues was the fact that, as a state capital with a large number of government buildings, only 46 percent of the city’s property is taxable for local purposes, and the state support was reduced as well.
Unfortunately, being fair didn’t make it any easier to deal with. “We started off restructuring and reengineering ordering, services, vendor services, doing as much creating efficiencies as we could. Then we were forced to reduce hours. When we hit this last cut we were no longer able to financially support those four buildings,” Matthews said. Part of the problem was that the library had to take over paying for maintenance of the city-owned buildings, which the city used to take care of, but Matthews says the library might have been able to absorb that cost if it hadn’t also had a further reduction of over $1 million.
To partially make up for the loss of the branches, the TFPL extended the main library hours from 40 to 60, and reopened the half of the building which had been shut up for lack of staffing.
Since the closures, the Catholic Youth Organization of Mercer County offered to lease the Skelton Branch for five years for preschool programs, according to the Times, but the city refused. Councilman Chester said the Education Testing Service had also expressed interest in helping do something with the branches and been turned away. And in late 2011 Mack squelched a plan that would have reopened the East Trenton under the auspices of the nonprofit organization CityWorks, insisting that all four branches be kept under city direction, according to the Times.
Who’s In Charge?
What aspect of the city is directing them, however, is less clear. “The Mayor’s Learning Center Library Initiative Committee has been meeting on a weekly basis,” the mayor said in his State of the City address. However, according to a New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) response to the Times, the advisory team met only once, in January 2011. According to that OPRA response, the team is made up of Anthony Roberts, Mayor Mack’s aide and, at the time, acting business administrator; acting public works director Harold Hall; recreation coordinator Sonya Wilkins; and acting inspections director Cleveland Thompson. No officials from the city’s library system or members of the library board of trustees are on it, nor does it include Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson, despite her request to be added. (Councilwoman Caldwell-Wilson did not respond to LJ’s request for comment.)
The March minutes of the TFPL’s board not only confirmed that the library administration had not been approached by anyone from the city to assist with the learning centers, but that the Mayor had told trustee Sherwood Brown that he intended to fire Matthews and trustee Crystal Smith reported that Roberts, “informed Ms. Smith of the Mayor’s intention to ‘get rid’ of Director Matthews,” as well as several slurs against Matthews by Brian White, a former TFPL employee who was quoted by the Times as saying he’d “been guaranteed a job” in the new regime.
Matthews can’t be fired or laid off by Mack, however; the director is hired by the board of trustees, whose members are in turn appointed by the mayor. And as the minutes reflect, the trustees support Matthew’s decision to close the branches and her general job performance. The terms of two trustees will expire in June. According to the minutes, Roberts told Smith the mayor intended to replace three members of the board, but no other trustees’ terms will be up until 2014.
Despite Mack’s animosity, Matthews told LJ she wouldn’t rule out participating in the learning centers. “We would welcome a conversation about running library services – a small reserve location, a couple of computers, our databases. We can’t afford to staff fully the buildings or maintain them, but if they are opened as community centers, we would love the opportunity to run a small satellite location,” she said.
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