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Rocky Hill Town Hall Leads to More Questions about the Future of a Local Library

By Rikki Massand | August 4, 2022

Rocky Hill Borough Council and Mayor Bob Uhrik hosted a virtual town hall on the future of a privately-owned public library formerly known as the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library, which was located in Rocky Hill. The online and call-in forum – which at times resembled both a eulogy for the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library, and a session for the community to ‘vent’ – was held on June 27, three weeks after the original June 6 meeting was called off due to technical difficulties.

Mayor Uhrik said the forum served as a platform to provide input to the appointed Rocky Hill Library Task Force, which includes himself, Council Member Susan Bristol, Council President Trey Delaney, resident Brad Bradherring, and former MJML branch manager Mei Mei Morris.

Rocky Hill Municipal Building

The mayor explained that the building formerly known as the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library at 64 Washington Street, was owned by the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library Foundation and is now owned by the new Mary Jacobs Foundation (MJF). It has been operated by Somerset County Library System (SCLS), he said, and it has received financial support from SCLS, Montgomery Township, and Rocky Hill Borough, and from the many private citizens who donated to the former MJML Foundation. He spoke about a 2020 agreement signed by the four parties, and noted that “plans are underway” with the MJF preparing an application that will come up before the Rocky Hill Planning Board, though there was no indication of a date for when the application becomes formal. [See also The Mary Jacobs Branch of the Somerset County Library in Rocky Hill Looks to be Delayed.]

“The library is on a path of transformation, after the building and the opening of the new Montgomery SCLS branch [about a mile away.] “The future of the [Rocky Hill] library is under further review as we are accepting the public’s input. Timeframes can change as projects such as this come up, but it is up to our partner, [MJF], and their architects. Council is seeking residents’ input … as the borough is a partner in this process and we do not have all the answers,” Uhrik explained.

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Residents asked about a potential lawsuit being brought by the borough against the MJF, pertaining to its action in dropping the word “library” from its name, and the vagary the foundation’s new mission as it relates to the initial mission. Mayor Uhrik noted that matters pertaining to litigation could not be discussed during the public session, so the question went unanswered. He neither confirmed nor denied that a lawsuit is in the works.

Rocky Hill resident Ann Reichelderfer, head of her law firm’s Estates and Trusts practice, presented her comments in writing to council. Her letter was read aloud at the town hall: “Having followed the vicissitudes of the Mary Jacobs Library relatively closely over the years, and having carefully read Harold Jacobs’ will, we are in favor of the borough obtaining legal advice and taking any necessary legal action to protect its interests in this multi-million dollar endowment, even though this action will cost some of our tax dollars. “We owe it to future generations of Rocky Hill residents to try to preserve this resource for the community for all time, as Harold Jacobs intended when he established it in memory of his wife.”

Reichelderfer represents several institutions of higher education in gift planning, trust and estate administration, taxation and regulation compliance. The Montgomery News emailed the MJF for a response to this. Foundation spokesperson Jacob, no relation to the Jacobs family, responded as follows: “While we appreciate Ms. Reichelderfer’s ... belief as to what Harold Jacobs intended, it is the foundation trustees’ understanding that Harold Jacobs’ original idea was to create a community church, not a library. “Because there was no library in the area at that time, he was persuaded by his attorney to fund a library instead of another church. From the beginning, Jacobs’ idea was to create a community asset. “In any case, the Mary Jacobs Foundation is governed by its Articles of Incorporation and the applicable New Jersey statutes, not by the will that was probated 50 years ago.”

Harold Jacobs’ will

Actually, Brad Bradherring of Rocky Hill noted at the town hall that Harold Jacobs’ will was “extremely detailed in what he was looking for, what he wanted, and what he was gifting to Rocky Hill’s residents.” “I know council is getting in the middle of this, but the [Mary Jacobs] Foundation needs to be told they are no longer fulfilling what Harold specifically gave the money to the community for,” he said.

Articles of incorporation are public information, even for a private foundation

The Montgomery News easily accessed the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library’s articles of incorporation online. Indeed, they are public information. Two paragraphs were of particular interest: “The corporation is organized and operated exclusively for charitable and educational purposes, and in particular, to establish, equip, and maintain a free library open to the public in the Borough of Rocky Hill, Somerset County ... which shall be known as the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library, and by no other name ...” This was amended on January 28 to read, “It is organized and operated exclusively for charitable and educational purposes, particularly in the areas of creativity, education, sustainability, and community engagement.” Does the new wording matter? Who is to decide whether Rocky Hill still needs a library that was gifted to the town 50 years, and just closed in May?

Why move the door if it delays the project?

Bradherring further noted at the town hall that the Rocky Hill Library Task Force presented an option for the parties involved to reopen the Phase-2 (mini library) in the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library building quickly, and for the MJF not have to spend $300,000 to $350,000 of the endowment. He asked Mayor Uhrik and Clerk Rebecca Newman if any response has come in from the Mary Jacobs Foundation. The task force said they were going to check on the status of it.

Town hall was overdue

Washington Street resident Courtney White shared that she thought the June 27 forum was “long overdue,” and that it was unfortunate there were not Rocky Hill town hall meetings prior to the closing of Mary Jacobs Memorial Library. She called this the most heartbreaking and upsetting issue, a sentiment repeated a few other times as people didn’t fully understand the process and MJML closure. White says borough residents have been “blindsided” by the actions of the Mary Jacobs Foundation. She adds that there isn’t a clear outline yet with the proposed $300,000 scope of work for the 64 Washington property “to reopen the library.” She called that investment a waste of money, and wanted to know when and why that decision was reached by the private foundation. White visiting the new Montgomery Library, White added that it is a beautiful space, however, she is surprised at the size. She said the new library is not very big. With other large housing developments taking place in the southern part of Montgomery and adjacent to Rocky Hill, she said she believes the area can still sustain the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library branch in addition to the Montgomery branch.

Former Mary Jacobs Memorial Library Foundation Board Member Hank Bristol said he and his wife, Council Member Susan Bristol, were both donors to the foundation. He was also a donor of and steward of the very funds that they helped raise. Bristol says past MJML Foundation board members “would be aghast with this devastation; to see a New Jersey Bond Act funding the closing of our library as a result of funding the new library.”

Hank Bristol, who lives in Rocky Hill, said the current predicament is no position for the Rocky Hill Borough government to be put in. “This was forced upon us by the inaction and non-communication of other parties. People had shut down, including our county commissioner board,” he said. To be fair, the Somerset County Commissioner Board changed completely in three years and has all new people — leaders who did not orchestrate the demise and closure of one library to open another library nearby. “The other reason the borough was forced into this role is the protection of our citizens’ rights outlined with [Harold Jacob’s] will, as we have rights to a library donated to us and the endowment that goes with it. “We need to protect this significant asset, and that’s why the borough is taking this on,” he said.

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Toth Lane resident Ramin Rizwani asked if the two-year window for the reimagined, library would kick in when Mary Jacobs potentially reopens 20 percent of its building as a mini library, or if the clock is now ticking away on that aspect of library presence. According the agreement, the clock starts ticking when the new library opens. He asked how the MJF plans to maximize its use of $3 million of endowment funds for the building, while time keeps wasting, inflation continues rising and the cost of labor goes up. “All of that could potentially jeopardize the timeframe,” he said. The mayor did not answer the questions, but said all the comments and questions would be submitted to borough council, the library task force, and Rocky Hill’s Library Committee for their review. He added that some questions “went beyond the [jurisdiction] of borough council.”

Somerset County Library System (SCLS) Administrator Brian Auger and some SCLS staff members attended Rocky Hill’s public forum. Auger responded to The Montgomery News’ request for feedback on June 30, explaining that data has already been gathered by SCLS, with a great amount of detail, on the demand for services that existed in the years that Mary Jacobs Memorial Library was an active branch in the county library system. That was 1974 to 2022. Calling librarians “data nerds,” Auger spoke about the examination of, and great attention to detail on how people used the Mary Jacobs Library.

SCLS has many metrics on what traffic was like at MJML through its last day on May 21 by day and hour; where borrowers came from; how long they stayed for; what they borrowed; and what items SCLS needed to bring into Rocky Hill from another branch. “What we don’t know, but are quickly learning, is how people will be using the library in Montgomery and, importantly, how this will likely affect usage and use patterns at a newly-renovated Mary Jacobs branch. The services we’ll offer initially will be based on what we know. Just as with any other branch, over time we will adapt the services we offer to match what people are using and asking for,” Auger noted.


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