Inside the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library in Rocky Hill
Rocky Hill Borough Council reached a consensus during its regular meeting on Monday, December 16, to explore every option to ensure that the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library (MJML) will remain in service as a library.
Council members resolved that "all options are on the table." They plan to actively explore solutions in 2020 that could include remaining a branch of the Somerset County Library System or forming an independent library, perhaps in partnership with Montgomery Township.
Councilwoman Irene Battaglia gave an update from the borough's library subcommittee. “Rocky Hill found itself in a reactive situation as the fundamental players in the game were and are Somerset County, Montgomery Township, and the MJML Foundation," she said. "The council and MJML Foundation looked for ways to keep a library in Rocky Hill, but initially were met by resistance from Somerset County and the former Montgomery Township committee members".
Rocky Hill’s library subcommittee was formed in 2018 and currently has three members: Mayor Robert Uhirk, and council members Billy Dawson and Irene Battaglia. The goal of the subcommittee is open communication with the public, “giving people a voice in the matter concerning the library.”
Councilwoman Amy Kirtland added that she and Councilwoman Rasheeda Pretto attended the Somerset County Governing Officials' Association dinner in early December when Somerset County Library Administrator Brian Auger approached them. According to Kirtland, Auger said he had emailed Mayor Robert Uhrik and the MJML Foundation (which controls the trust and owns the library building at 64 Washington Street) to begin negotiations for extending the county library operations at the Rocky Hill branch for another year, through December 2021.
The current Somerset County library agreement with the MJML Foundation is scheduled to end in December 2020. The county is expected to move into a new space in Montgomery Township's new municipal complex, which will be located on Orchard Road on the corner for Route 206. However, the Montgomery municipal complex is delayed, and still on the architect's desk pending final approval.
Montgomery Township Administrator Donato Nieman reported in the December issue of The Montgomery News that: "Design of the new municipal building continues to move. It is anticipated the design and bid specifications will be completed, allowing the project to go out to bid the end of January. The bid will be advertised for several months and it is anticipated that an award of bid would be approved in April. Ground-breaking and site work should commence in the late spring/early summer if all goes as planned.
An architect's rendering of the library component of the proposed Montgomery municipal complex
In May, Foundation President Cary Dawson and Montgomery Township Committeeman Marvin Schuldiner approached the subcommittee to discuss a new idea in which Montgomery Township and Rocky Hill Borough would form a joint municipal library system. Cary is the wife of Rocky Hill Borough Council President Billy Dawson; who was unable to attend the December 16 council meeting.
"This conceptual plan would allow for more targeted programming,"Battaglia said. "Preliminary financial planning anticipates a positive financial outcome for residents of both municipalities. Most important for those of us in Rocky Hill, this plan would allow the MJML building to continue as a functioning library resource in the community.”
Battaglia told Rocky Hill council members that Montgomery Committeeman Schuldiner was instrumental in the creation of the Franklin Township Library as a trustee. Also, Schuldiner has “run some numbers” for a potential new joint-municipality library system.
Rocky Hill Councilwoman Connie Hallman was steadfast in her belief that it’s best to remain as a branch of the Somerset County Library System, stating she would not want the local library to be separate from the big county system, which offers many resources. Hallman added that several Somerset County leaders informed her that they would like to hear proposals about the county system continuing its involvement with the MJML.
Mayor Uhrik thanked Hallman for explaining what she heard from the county freeholders and said, "there's a couple of avenues here."
Battaglia said public information sessions in a town hall format should be considered to address residents’ questions and concerns. In addition, there could be a possible November 2020 referendum, “which would allow the people to decide if they want to partner with Montgomery and form a joint municipal library system,” she said.
Borough Attorney Albert Cruz clarified that there is no finite decision involved in council’s consensus that binds Rocky Hill into one library system or another, or that leaves options off the table should something new arise.
Rocky Hill is set “to explore all options including a new joint municipal library system and bringing this question to a public referendum in November,” Battaglia said, adding that conversations will soon be scheduled with Brian Auger and county officials to focus “on a collaborative path moving forward."
Ultimately public information sessions could be held by the MJML Foundation, followed by two public referendums on November 2020 local ballots for creating a new library system: one referendum for Rocky Hill and another for Montgomery residents.
The MJML library opened in 1974 to serve Rocky Hill and Montgomery residents with library services provided through Somerset County, which means tax dollars pay for the resources, such as the books and digital media, the staff, and most programs.
The library building and grounds are owned by a private, non-profit foundation: Mary Jacobs Memorial Library Foundation. Thanks to the financial support of the foundation, the library building has been expanded three separate times in order to accommodate the growth of the library’s collection and the growing population of Montgomery.