Libraries would benefit from approval of public question in the fall

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

The library is much more than just the place where the books are. Nowadays, they’re the internet cafe, recreation center, job placement center and local hangout. But in these days of shrinking municipal budgets and other priorities, libraries have started to feel the pinch.

“The budget here has been cut more than 28 percent since 2010, and on top of that, the municipality is now charging us for our medical benefits, so the budget went from $600,000 to somewhere in the $450,000 range,” said Jeanne Marie Ryan who runs the Roselle Public Library. “As you can imagine, when payroll is your biggest expense, it’s a tough thing to actually meet your expenses.”

If you ask Ryan, she’ll show you a dozen places where they have had to delay work or simply ignore repairs for lack of funds.

“We’re in a 1937 building,” she continued, “trying to serve a community of over 21,000 people; we don’t even have a separate space for programs, and our electrical needs are barely adequate to cover the computer services that we try to provide to our customers here.”

Pat Tumulty, director of the New Jersey Library Association, says the Roselle library is not alone. Libraries across the state are seeing more challenges and less finances.

“In 2009, per capita, it was $67 per capita to support libraries; today it’s something like $55, so its gone down $12 per capita,” she noted. “That’s $55 per year, per person. A little over a dollar a week to support your local library.”

Thirty-three cents out of every thousand dollars in local taxes go to fund your local library, but library administrators and their allies in the Legislature – from both parties – want the state to bond for (that means borrow) $125 million to help strapped libraries pay for capital improvements, outside and inside. The state would use the $125 million to create a dollar-for-dollar grant program. The question will be on the ballot in the fall, and, while Tumulty is confident voters will see her side of the issue, there are naysayers.

“I should mention that my own library has a spectacularly good local history section and I have occasionally made use of it. It’s a great resource, but that doesn’t mean it’s entitled to unlimited funds,” said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll.

They’re not unlimited funds, but they do add to the state debt and debt hawks like Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno say they’re reluctant to agree to more debt, as much as they like libraries.

“What I said was I wanted to make sure we needed the libraries,” she said today. “I was afraid of the amount of the debt, but let the people vote.”

That they will, in the fall, which might not be the most interesting thing on the ballot, but could have a lot of impact on that place down the street, where all the books live.