The $500,000 Raid On The Middletown Library Won’t Be The Last

The Township Committee adds two additional Library Board members, sets the stage for majority control in 2012.

by guest blogger Linda Baum

A couple of months back, there was a rumor that the Township Committee intended to appoint two additional members to the Middletown Library Board, bringing the number of Board members from 7 to 9. (By comparison, keep in mind that the Township Committee consists of just 5 people.)

As it turns out, the rumor is true. At the Township Committee’s November 21, 2011 meeting, Ordinance 2011-3048 was introduced to add two new Library trustees. A public hearing on the Ordinance will be held at the Town Committee’s regular meeting on Monday, December 19, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.

Two of the existing Board members, Mr. Milne and Ms. Raymond, are up for re-appointment at year end, and another Board member was already booted and replaced with Committeeman Settembrino at the start of this year. Add to those three spots the two new ones, and that’s a 5-4 majority to do the Town Committee’s bidding. So it would seem our mayor and his fellow Town Committee members have no intention of stopping at half a million.

As many of you know, I regularly attend the Library Board meetings and have since February of this year. I’m the only member of the public who regularly attends. If the woman who frequented Board of Education meetings was seen as the natural pick for that Board, I figure that makes me the front runner for one of the two new spots on the Library Board, right??? So I am submitting to the Town my application for Library Board membership, a futile effort since I am not likely to be appointed. My guess is that the two new appointees, or likely four if Mr. Milne and Ms. Raymond are replaced, will be members of the Republican Party faithful who are already serving on one or more other boards or commissions. I guess we’ll find out on Township Reorganization Day.

To understand what these changes could mean, let me recap a little history. In a taxpayer-funded play in 2010, Township attorney Brian Nelson succeeded in having New Jersey law changed to require our municipal public library to relinquish to the Township a significant portion of its surplus. (Previously, the law allowed for the transfer of funds but there was no requirement.) Now, the Library can keep some surplus — an amount no more than 20% above the prior year’s budget — but has to fork over the rest, with some exceptions. Some Library monies are protected under the law and are not considered surplus, such as restricted reserves for capital projects.

You may recall that of the $500K taken from the Library this year, half was restricted reserves that the Township was not entitled to legally. That’s one of the reasons such a battle erupted. The Library trustees were out-maneuvered from the start and in the end most felt obligated to pay the full $500,000. It was not without recognizing the precarious financial condition it left the Library in.

Faced with the substantial reduction in funding, the combined result of the $500K raid and an overall revenue decline in line with lower assessments, the Library trustees have been diligent this year about reducing costs where feasible without disruption to services. However, success in reducing the operating budget also has the effect of reducing the amount of surplus that can be retained (20% of the budget), leaving more on the table to be taken by the Township. In addition, the trustees have had to balance the need to set aside reserves – for unexpected expenses or to compensate for annual fluctuations in revenue – against what they stand to lose. The greater the reserve, the more the Township can take.

At its November 16th meeting, the Library Board discussed moving $122,000 to the capital fund to save for the parking lot expansion. Restricting a portion of the reserves for capital projects is supposed to protect the money from seizure by the Township. It won’t. The Library Board need only vote to unrestrict the funds, as was done this year. While the current Board is not likely to do that a second time, the newly re-structured 9-member Board might, and the Town Committee can ensure that it will by appointing the “right” people to the Board.

Sadly, the result may be a Library Board that fails to act in the best interests of the Library.

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Filed under Board of Trustees, guest blogger, Linda Baum, Middletown Library, Middletown NJ, reserved funds, resolutions and ordinances, surplus funds

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