May 22, 2018

Watchung, NJ Borough Council Votes to Close Library

Watchung Public Library

Watchung Public Library
Photo credit: Peggy Ellis

Blindsided by the borough council’s April vote to close the Watchung Public Library, NJ, (WPL), patrons and other supporters are mobilizing a grassroots effort to keep the facility—which everyone agrees is undersized, aging, and unsafe—from shutting its doors permanently.

Leaders of the local library community watched in shock as the Watchung Borough Council voted 5–1 on April 19 to abandon efforts to renovate or rebuild WPL and instead explore “commercial redevelopment” opportunities for the site. No closing date was mentioned. The decision short-circuited years of debate over how to proceed and rendered moot arguments over how to pay for either option.

The vote also triggered public fervor to keep WPL open, which included the formation of the Coalition to Save the Watchung Library. A petition is making the rounds. Other plans are being hatched.

“We’ve definitely riled up more of the town than ever before,” said Mayor Stephen Pote, who did not have a vote on April 19 but has come out strongly against closing the library. “I’ve never seen the attention being given to an issue like this one.”

“We’re spreading the word,” said Peggy Ellis, one of the coalition’s founders as well as a member of the Friends of the Watchung Library. “When you get enough people together, you generate lots of ideas.”

The vote itself was unexpected, Ellis insisted. The library’s future has been debated on and off for more than 15 years, but the matter was not on the April 19 council agenda. Few had any inkling, she added, that elected officials planned to settle WPL’s fate so decisively that night.

Councilman Williams Nehls, making what seemed like a routine report from his Buildings & Grounds portfolio, offered his surprise resolution. At the mayor’s urging, more than a dozen residents spoke out, imploring the council to defeat the proposition. But it passed easily.

“There was no indication that the library would be discussed,” said Ellis. “We had no notice.”

Nehls’s motion also called for Watchung to explore a shared services arrangement with nearby libraries, a point that drew Ellis’s ire. WPL is already a member of the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey (SCLS), she noted, which operates ten branches. “We already have shared services,” she told LJ.

Nehls did not respond to repeated requests for an interview; nor did he answer a list of questions emailed to him through Watchung Borough Clerk Michelle DeRocco. Councilmen Dave Mobus and Stephen L. Black also did not acknowledge requests for comment.

Many options, no choices

Since 1975, WPL has operated out of the former Harlan Pratt house, a residential space built in the 1940s. The Stirling Road location is situated between Watchung and Best lakes, a popular recreational area in the center of the community.

People on both sides of the debate agree the facility isn’t suitable as modern library. It’s not ADA compliant, and with roughly 4,000 square feet of usable space, it’s considered far too small. Physical repairs are badly needed; a structural report actually deemed it unsafe for staff members. There aren’t enough parking spaces.

An architectural report in 2002 noted these deficiencies, most of which have yet to be corrected. A Library Study Committee was formed in 2006. Less than a year later, that panel recommended hiring an architect to draft plans for a renovated facility. In 2012, designs were unveiled for a $4.2 million, 17,000-square-foot library/community center.

The governing body green-lit a nonbinding November referendum to see exactly how many voters wanted to fund the new construction. The final tally was 1,026 to 858 against the idea.

However, Superstorm Sandy had battered Watchung only a handful of days before the vote. Many library advocates claimed that informational literature distributed by the Watchung Library Study Committee failed to reach an adequate number of homes due to storm-related mail problems. But the vote stood.

Two years later, in July 2014, a majority of council members adopted a resolution earmarking $1.5 million for either renovation (if viable) or reconstruction. Pote and others favored razing the existing library to the foundation, then building a larger, safer replacement. But the debate continued and that $1.5 million was never spent.

December 2014 brought another key development. Lortech, Inc. submitted an engineering report recommending “structural” upgrades if the Pratt House would continue to serve as the town’s library. That would mean making the space ADA compliant and finally bringing electrical systems and plumbing up to code.

In late 2017, proponents of renovating the library were excited about a new revenue stream designed to aid facilities exactly like WPL. The New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act, approved by state voters on November 7, established a pool of $125 million available for capital improvement grants to public libraries. Those grants will be announced this fall, but Watchung never applied for one.

“It is so weirdly ironic that this is the moment they vote for no library,” library supporter Virginia Hartmann said, insisting the council ignored a perfect opportunity to obtain reconstruction money.

For months, the matter remained in limbo. Library supporters told LJ that WPL had not even been discussed at a council meeting since November 2017. Council members also offered no public explanation for their April 19 vote, those present reported.

“This decision reversed all their promises in one fell swoop,” said Amy Fiorilla, president of Watchung’s Library Advisory Board.

There’s no telling when WPL will close. On the Save Watchung Library Facebook page, Ellis wrote on May 7: “Good news! Watchung Borough Administrator Tom Atkins tells me that the Watchung Library will definitely remain open through the summer and probably at least through 2018.”

WPL employs a staff of 11, six of whom are full time, said SCLS County Administrator Brian Auger. When WPL does shut its doors, Auger said, its employees will be placed in jobs at other SCLS facilities. “We’ll find a place for them,” he said. A percentage of WPL’s overall collection will also be saved and added to other county facilities, Auger noted.

Taxing questions

After the Borough Council’s decision, community members ramped up efforts to make sure Watchung, an affluent community of about 6,000 residents, still has its own library. The coalition was formed and, Ellis said, now has about 50 members. A Facebook page was launched. Hard copies of the petition are circulating. Yard signs are being distributed. There’s a Father’s Day march in the works. But for now, the Borough Council’s vote appears to be the final word on the subject. With no library, Watchung patrons would need to use nearby SCLS branches in Warren or North Plainfield.

Warren Township is only a ten-minute drive from Watchung, but library supporters say that’s not the point. They argue their beloved community will suffer an obvious void without its own library Even if it does close, the borough must continue to pay its share of county library taxes.

In a statement on April 19, Councilman Robert Gibbs said a $3 million library project would require a tax increase of $87.45 for the average Watchung homeowner, about a 1 percent tax increase. “Peanuts,” was how Ellis described it.

“For the vast majority, it’s nothing,” she said. “People are screaming, ‘We can’t afford it, we can’t afford it.’ Well, they can.”

Ellis added, “There are people here who don’t use the library and don’t want their tax dollars used for the library.”

Nonetheless, many residents do use the library, although statistics provided by Auger did show a decline in 2017 compared to the previous year. In 2016, the library recorded 63,983 visits, 9.22 percent more than the 58,081 visits logged for all of 2017.

Hope in November

Local elections in November may offer another sliver of hope for library supporters.  The mayor and all six councilmen belong to the GOP, which in Watchung, has long dominated  local office. But for the first time since 2006, there will be a Democratic challenger for both council seats up for grabs in the fall, as well as the mayoralty. Their success is a long shot, given that Republican voters in Watchung outnumber Democrats by a 2-1 margin, according to the local Democratic Party chairman. But all three Democrats are on record as opposed to closing the library, and the issue could be heated enough to transcend party loyalty.

Contested races are a relatively new phenomenon in Watchung; it’s been several years since the Democrats fielded even a single candidate for local office, several residents told LJ. “I’ve lived in Watchung nearly 26 years and this is the first time we have two full slates of candidates for the position of mayor and the two council seats,” Ellis said.

Lindsay Goodloe and Daryl Eisenberg Knegten are the two Democrats running for council, while Keith Balla is vying for mayor. LJ reached out to all three candidates, and they each declared themselves very much opposed to the council’s vote. It’s a stance they intend to campaign on.

Louis Beckerman, chairman of the Watchung Democratic party, said he moved to town only two years ago, but his efforts to energize the party are clearly paying off. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why [the current] council chose to make this an issue,” Beckerman said. “Having a town without a library? That’s just not right.”

“I’m for there being a library of our own in Watchung,” Eisenberg Knegten said in an email. “The recent vote to close it was conducted without any thoughtful consultation with the people of our town, and that lack of transparency is the main problem.”

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