Joint Municipal Library Study for Montgomery and Rocky Hill
By Deputy Mayor Catherine Gural and Montgomery Township Committeeman Marvin Schuldiner
| December 21, 2019
When we ran for office in 2018, we ran on a platform of delivering government services to the people of Montgomery in the most cost-effective way possible. Building a new library at the new municipal building — less than 2 miles from the existing Mary Jacobs Library in Rocky Hill — gave us pause, because we wondered if proper attention had been given to the cost, efficiency and divisiveness of such an undertaking by the prior administration. Many people we spoke with on the campaign trail lamented the loss of the Mary Jacobs Library, a facility that they and their children grew up in.
Both Montgomery and Rocky Hill are part of the Somerset County Library System (SCLS). SCLS provides the library operations, but not the facilities. Mary Jacobs Library is unique — it is the only privately-owned public library building in the state. SCLS is funded by property taxes that each property owner pays at a rate of 4.8 cents per $100 of assessed value. In Montgomery, we pay 5.8 cents per $100 of assessed value due to equalization of property values, since Montgomery properties are assessed at 80 percent of actual market value. This amounts to around $2.25 million per year that the residents of Montgomery pay to SCLS.
Before moving to Montgomery, Marvin was president of the Franklin Township Public Library Board of Trustees. Thus, he is very familiar with public library operations. The statutory minimum for funding municipal libraries is 3.3 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The Franklin Public Library operates at the statutory minimum, as do most municipal libraries in New Jersey. This means being part of SCLS is costing Montgomery and Rocky Hill taxpayers a 45 percent premium.
This generated many questions. Are we receiving 45 percent extra value for this arrangement? Are we getting the best library services regardless of cost? Do we receive library services that make Montgomery the special place that it is? Shouldn’t there be economies of scale while operating a larger system? What will we lose if the Mary Jacobs Foundation is no longer involved with the library? How do we ensure that we get the best that a new library has to offer without losing the aspects of the Mary Jacobs Library that our community has relied upon for decades?
Once in office, we started to explore the entire library issue. We were not the first. Jessie Havens, a Montgomery resident, had presented a study she performed to the Township Committee in 2016 showing that SCLS was so expensive that non-resident library cards cost less than what the average resident was paying in library property tax. The SCLS non-resident fee is far higher than surrounding towns -- well more than double.
We also started a dialogue with both the Mary Jacobs Foundation and Rocky Hill elected officials. Even though we are separate municipalities with vastly different levels of population, 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 and services. We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.
So how can we work together to benefit the residents of both towns and keep the Mary Jacobs Foundation engaged in this endeavor? Can we have a library in Montgomery while preserving a legacy in Rocky Hill? Can the sum of these two be greater than the individual parts?
We think the answer is forming a joint Montgomery - Rocky Hill municipal library with the participation of the Mary Jacobs Foundation and leaving SCLS. There are a handful of joint municipal libraries in New Jersey, including one here in Somerset County between Bedminster and Far Hills. Before consolidation, the Princetons had a joint municipal library.
The plan would be to have a main traditional library branch at the new Montgomery municipal building and a smaller, non-traditional branch in Rocky Hill. The non-traditional function would be selected with public input, with some ideas being a maker space, podcast/video studios, musical instrument practice space, tutoring space, an art library, etc. It could also have a small collection and reading room. Items from the main branch could be picked up and dropped off at the Rocky Hill branch. We could also consider putting drop boxes near Pike Run and maybe even helping Stonebridge manage their small collection. It would be up to us, the citizens of Montgomery and Rocky Hill, how to utilize our assets.
A joint municipal library would give us more local control. It would allow us to form reciprocal or shared services agreements with libraries in neighboring towns, such as Princeton, Franklin, South Brunswick, Hopewell and Plainsboro. We could tailor the hours for our community’s needs -- like having Sunday or early morning hours. How about a larger collection of eBooks and audio books you can access from anywhere? Pursuant to state law, the local school superintendent (or designee) would be an ex-officio member of the joint municipal library board. This would allow for greater coordination between school programs and public library support.
We would also be able to control the library programming and tailor programs for our community. SCLS has a policy that programs be identical at all of its branches. Our county is not homogenous, yet we are treated as if we are. By the way, the summer concert series and some of the other programs you enjoy at Mary Jacobs branch are actually solely funded by the Foundation.
Can this be accomplished for the 3.3 cents per $100 of assessed value (with an equalization for Montgomery’s 80 percent values)? According to the preliminary budget and plans we have developed, we believe it can be done. We have validated these plans and budget with a current municipal library director as well as a library consultant (a former Princeton library director) hired by the Foundation. Neither of these people has an entrenched interest in this project. We have also verified that our budget is similar to the actual expenditures for similarly-sized municipalities across New Jersey.
There would be one additional and significant bonus of a joint library. Currently, the operating agreement between the Foundation and SCLS expires at the end of 2020. The Foundation has a fiduciary responsibility to its assets, namely the current library building, which the Foundation will move to sell. The new Montgomery municipal building will not likely be ready until early 2023. This means Montgomery would need to rent and fit-out a temporary space for the library for two years. This would cost roughly $1 million to the Township. Alternatively, we could forego that and everyone would have to go to other SCLS branches such as Hillsborough or Bridgewater. Montgomery would still pay SCLS $2.25 million for that privilege. Roughly 80% of SCLS transactions by Montgomery residents occur at the Mary Jacobs branch. If we pursue a joint municipal library, the Foundation would keep Mary Jacobs Library open until the new building is ready. Then we would prepare a new facility in Rocky Hill, either in part of the current facility or elsewhere.
How do we make a joint municipal library happen? This is where you come in. This process is all controlled by state statute. Under state law, formation of a joint municipal library would need to be approved through a public referendum. Ultimately, this is up to the people of Montgomery and Rocky Hill.
But first, the two municipalities would need to complete a joint library agreement, which would specify all the details and arrangements between the towns regarding the joint library. Then each governing body would pass an ordinance agreeing to the joint library agreement, which would also place the referendum on the next general election ballot. Once both towns pass the referendum, both governing bodies would vote to leave SCLS. The resignation notice to SCLS would start a two-year exit period.
We obviously would also hold town hall meetings to discuss this so residents can make an informed decision. It is a complex issue and an article in this newspaper does not do it justice.
The plans are not yet completed. However, we wanted to let you know that we have been studying this on your behalf, and trying to live up to our campaign promise of giving you more for less. Many rumors, true and false, are floating around in the community. We wanted you to hear the facts directly from the source.
We look forward to continuing the discussion in the new year.