Proposal for a Joint Montgomery Township / Rocky Hill Library
In 2018, we ran for office on a platform of delivering the most cost-effective government services to Montgomery.
Building a library at the new municipal building — 1.7 miles from the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library (MJML) in Rocky Hill — gave us pause. We wondered if proper attention was given to the cost, efficiency, and divisiveness of such an undertaking by the prior administration. Many people we spoke with while campaigning lamented the loss of MJML, a facility that they and their children grew up in.
Both Montgomery and Rocky Hill are part of the Somerset County Library System (SCLS), which provides the library operations, but not the facilities. MJML is unique, being the only privately-owned public library building in NJ.
SCLS is funded by property taxes at a rate of 4.8 cents per $100 of assessed value. Montgomery’s rate is equalized to 5.8 cents per $100 of assessed value – a total levy of about $2.25 million annually.
The statutory minimum in NJ for funding municipal libraries is 3.3 cents per $100 of assessed value. The Franklin Library operates at the statutory minimum, as do most municipal libraries. This means being part of SCLS costs Monty taxpayers a 45 percent premium.
Once elected, we opened a dialogue with the MJML Foundation and Rocky Hill elected officials. Although we are separate municipalities with vastly different populations, we are a common community. Our children attend the same schools, we shop and dine in each other’s towns, and we share many joint initiatives.
How can we work together to benefit the residents of both towns and keep the MJML Foundation engaged in this endeavor?
We think the answer is forming a joint Montgomery/Rocky Hill municipal library with the participation of the MJML Foundation. We would leave SCLS.
There are a handful of joint municipal libraries in our state, including Bedminster / Far Hills, and the Princetons before consolidation.
The plan would have a main traditional library branch at the new Montgomery municipal building and a smaller, non-traditional branch in Rocky Hill.
The public would help select the non-traditional function (a maker-space, podcast/video studios, musical instrument practice, or tutoring space). It could also have a small collection and reading room with availability of main branch items.
A joint municipal library would give us more local control. We could form reciprocity with libraries in neighboring towns, such as Princeton, Franklin, South Brunswick, and Plainsboro.
How about Sunday and-or early morning hours? More e-Books and audio books? Drop boxes near Pike Run? Helping Stonebridge manage their small collection? Greater coordination between our schools and library, as the school superintendent would be an ex-officio member of the joint library board.
We would be able to control the library programming and tailor programs for our community. SCLS offers identical programs at all branches. Incidentally, the MJML Foundation solely funds the summer concert series and other programs at MJML.
Can this be accomplished for the statutory minimum? We believe it can. We have validated our preliminary plans and budget with a current library director and a consultant (a former Princeton library director). Neither has an entrenched interest in this project. We also verified that our budget is similar to actual library expenditures at similarly-sized municipalities.
There would be an additional significant bonus. The operating agreement between the MJML Foundation and SCLS expires December 31, 2020.
The MJML Foundation will move to sell the current building to protect their assets. The new Montgomery library will not likely be ready until 2023.
Montgomery would need to rent and fit-out a temporary library space for two years, costing roughly $1 million. Or, everyone could go to other SCLS branches while we still pay SCLS $2.25 million annually.
Currently, 80 percent of SCLS transactions by Montgomery residents occur at MJML in Rocky Hill.
If we (Montgomery) pursue a joint library, the MJML Foundation would keep MJL open until the new building is ready. Then we would prepare the new facility in Rocky Hill.
How do we make a joint municipal library happen? First the towns need to complete a library agreement. Each governing body would ratify the agreement via an ordinance, placing a public referendum on the November ballot. Once both towns pass the referendum, both towns would vote to leave SCLS, starting a two-year exit period. Ultimately, this is up to the people of Montgomery and Rocky Hill.
We would hold multiple town hall meetings to discuss this so residents can make an informed decision on this complex issue.
The plans are not yet completed. Many rumors, true and false, are floating around. We wanted you to hear the facts directly from the source.
We look forward to continuing the discussion. ■
Catherine Gural serves as deputy mayor for Montgomery and Marvin Schuldiner is a member of township committee. Previously, Marvin was president of the Franklin Township Library. ■