M’TOWN LIBRARY CENTER OF BUDGET BATTLE

hot-topic rightBy DUSTIN RACIOPPI

A plan by  Middletown’s governing body to raid the public library’s $1.2 million surplus in a bid to save police jobs  has set off an  imbroglio in which officials are taking hard-line stances on each side.

With the township committee well into its 2011-’12 budget process, the hunt for savings and more revenue is on, and officials have zeroed in on the library for much-needed dollars to save jobs, says Mayor Tony Fiore.

That has pitted elected officials against the library’s manager and some patrons.

On Wednesday night, the two sides will try to hash it out in a public meeting at the library.

At risk in the budget process are nearly 30 township government jobs, including all but one recreation department position, and a possible merger with the Monmouth County Library system.

Committeeman Kevin Settembrino, who was appointed to the library board earlier this year, has suggested that the board contribute $898,000 from its surplus toward the town’s budget, a he says could save police jobs and head off a possible relinquishment of the library to the county.

But the library board is questioning the legality of Settembrino’s suggestion while arguing that there are no municipal funds in its surplus to give the township.

Library Treasurer Sherry Miloscia sent an email over the weekend outlining Settembrino’s suggestion, but Fiore calls many of her points “factual errors and omissions.”

Miloscia’s email says the committee is asking for $2.3 million, but Fiore says it is asking for $898,000, an amount he said will have no impact on the library’s operations.

Library Director Susan O’Neal said most of the surplus money is restricted, so even if the board wanted to draw from it, legally it couldn’t. Plus, she said the surplus money was raised through donations, fines and copy fees over the last several years.

“There’s no municipal money in these reserves at all. They are not surplus from our budget,” O’Neal said. “(It) was built up by the trustees so it wouldn’t have to go to the township to finance any capital projects at the library.”

The money in the surplus is earmarked for future projects, O’Neal said, like a solar initiative, addressing a parking shortage at the main library, technology upgrades and a possible renovation at the Lincroft branch.

One large point at dispute between the board and the committee is payment on the library’s $8.5 million renovation in 2004, $7 million of which was bonded for by the township. Fiore said the library has made no payments on the bond, and it’s time for the board to ditch its “spend-it-before-we-have-to-give-it-back mentality.”

The $898,000 the township is asking for represents the annual $565,000 the town pays on the debt service for the bond and a $333,000 decrease in property value in 2012 due to a recent reassessment, officials say.  Other entities, like the sewerage authority, which contributed about $360,000 from its surplus toward the town budget last year, will chip in to help this year.

“I don’t think the people of Middletown realize the library is sitting on a huge surplus,” Fiore said. “What we’re asking of them is to contribute that portion of the surplus.”

But O’Neal said the town agreed to bond for the renovations and therefore agreed to pick up the tab. And for the town to ask for nearly $900,000 in one shot, she said, is “just physically not possible,” and could cripple the library, which, with a myriad of programs and community events, serves as much a role as a educational and cultural center of the town as it does an information hub.

“I think we’re faced with something far more serious and far more grave,” O’Neal said, “and the library’s future is in doubt.”

Fiore said if an agreement isn’t made with the library, the town will explore all other possibilities to cut costs, including possibly folding the library into the county’s system. The priority, he said, is to save jobs.

“I’m not going to take more police off the street to not examine that option if they don’t want to work with us,” he said.

Over the weekend, emails from the township and library circulated outlining each side of the argument.

On Wednesday, attorneys from both sides are expected to attend the board’s meeting to clarify those points and perhaps find some solution.

“It’s really disturbing when something goes viral, sometimes information gets distorted,” O’Neal said, “and the only way to rectify that is in a public meeting.”

The meeting, open to the public, will start at 7p in the main library on New Monmouth Road.