By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
The line of cars backing up in both directions on New Monmouth Road Wednesday night was the first sign that the Middletown library board meeting starting in a few minutes was going to be a departure from the humdrum of the trustees’ typical monthly session.
“Good evening, everybody, and welcome to the combat zone,” board president Randall Gabrielan quipped at the opening, and he wasn’t far off. Before it was over, one citizen had invoked invoked the name of the world’s foremost terrorist in challenging an elected official’s suitability to even sit on the board, and Garbrielan himself had been accused of lying.
But after more than three hours of heated debate, finger-pointing, name-calling and innuendo, the issue of whether the library board would grant a request by the township committee for $898,000 of the library’s $1.2 million surplus to help balance the town budget moved toward a possible resolution.
Indeed, this was not going to be swift or pretty, as the library faced implications it had never seen before: the threat of being transferred to the Monmouth County library system and indirect blame for township employees being laid off.
At the end of the long night, though, the board compromised, agreeing to have the attorneys and administrators from both bodies meet within the next two weeks to try and agree upon an “amicable” figure the library would take from its surplus and transfer to the general budget. That number will be voted on at a meeting in March.
It took a marathon of debate to get to that point, though.
Residents filled the library’s meeting room to probe officials, tell their stories about the library and, at times, take jabs at elected officials. At one point, a line seven deep formed behind the microphone.
Resident Mike Burns took aim at Committeeman Kevin Settembrino, who also serves on the library board and favors the raid on the surplus. It was, perhaps, an initiation to Middletown politics for Settembrino, who took office in January and, as Burns pointed out, doesn’t hold a library card.
“Mr. Settembrino, when was the last time you checked out a book? When was the last time you checked out a CD? When was the last time you checked out a DVD?” he asked. “I think it’s interesting that you’re on the library board. Can you tell me what the difference is between you serving on the library board and Osama bin Laden serving on the Department of Homeland Security?”
While harsh comments peppered the meeting, there was also constructive criticism for township officials to consider in the formation of Middletown’s budget.
The town, facing declining revenues and a staggering amount of tax appeal refunds, came to the library board last month for help, asking for $898,000 to cover the library’s debt service on a bond for the library’s renovation and a decrease in its property value.
Linda Baum suggested that rather than dip into the library surplus, the committee should consider other cost-reduction options, like outsourcing leaf and brush collection.
“There’s your million dollars right there,” she said. “We obviously need to do some creative thinking.”
Before the meeting got started, and shortly after, the tension among the board and committee members reached a fever pitch as a result of the committee’s threat that if the board didn’t help with the town budget, the committee would explore the option of transferring the library to the county system. The committee also filed a layoff plan with the state calling for the elimination of 26 jobs, including those of 10 police officers, adding to the pressure put on the library board.
At the meeting’s opening, Settembrino interrupted Gabrielan’s introduction twice to quibble over Robert’s Rules of Order, clearly miffing Gabrielan and setting a tense tone for the meeting.
Gabrielan, making a counterpoint to Deputy Mayor Pamela Brightbill, who read from a letter posted on the township’s website, got into a brief exchange of finger-pointing with Settembrino.
“You are not going to sit here and berate the deputy mayor,” Settembrino said. “That’s not going to happen, so let’s not talk about your lies.”
The board, with the exception of Settembrino, seemed hesitant, for legal and other reasons, to even consider making a contribution to the town budget. Members argued that most of the surplus was at least restricted or governed by law to stay within a certain percentage of last year’s operating budget.
But eventually, the board acceded to the committee’s request to at least try and help, as long as all parties agree that the yet-to-be-determined number is legally allowed.
“Coming up with a number does not necessarily mean we’re going to approve it,” Gabrielan said.