By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
In order to help the township balance its budget and avoid further layoffs, the Middletown Library Board of Trustees swallowed a “bitter pill” Wednesday night and agreed to release nearly $500,000 in surplus funds over to the municipal budget.
The resolution, by a vote of 5 to 2, also includes stipulations that the library will be part of the township’s alternative energy initiative, will get its much-needed parking lot expansion and won’t be considered for transfer to the county library system an option that was never possible anyway, said board president Randall Gabrielan, who voted against the agreement that stemmed from weeks’ worth of negotiations, which he called “dictatoral.”
“I’m sad to say the result of the negotiations was extremely disappointing,” he said.
Yet, after more discussion among the board, and some tweaking to the agreement, Gabrielan, who earlier made a failed proposal to transfer just $250,000 to the town, was joined by only one other board member, vice president Greg Milne, in opposition to transferring $499,974 from the library’s $1.2 million surplus to the township.
Unlike Gabrielan, who characterized the agreement as a “slap in the face” to the library, Milne’s main concern was the library being included in the town’s 2012 roadwork plan, in which an expansion of the parking lot would be part in a municipal bond package along with other road projects.
Considering that the board had enough in surplus to fund the expansion, he would have preferred the requested amount of money be lowered and the library move ahead on the parking lot on its own. Plus, he said, state statute says municipal debt is not an allowable reason to transfer surplus funds.
“If it was $399,947 I would vote for it,” he said.
The board, after conferring with township Attorney Brian Nelson over the phone, adjusted the initial agreement to give the option of the library to self-fund the parking lot expansion if it has the money available. If not, it will be part of the town’s bonding, and the library would pay down the debt on the project.
Earlier this year, the town came to the library seeking almost $900,000 to help balance the budget. That number was lowered last week after negotiations between the two entities continued.
Township officials, which had filed a plan with the state to layoff 26 employees, including 10 police officers, said help from the library plus concessions from the town’s unions would be the only way to avoid more layoffs. On Wednesday, those 26 employees received layoff notices that, unless unions and the town can come to an agreement on lowering health and benefits costs, will take effect April 29, Mayor Tony Fiore said.
“If we can come to an agreement in savings on some of the benefits plus other mechanisms, we will amend the list,” he said. “Just because you’ve received the notice doesn’t mean you’re definitely going to be let go.”
The committee’s request for funds sparked intense debate and pitted residents against the committee, as it suggested it would look into folding the library into the county system.
Before the agreement, which was drawn up after negotiations among attornies and administrators from the library and township, went to the board for a vote Wednesday, the public had its chance to weigh in. But only a handful of residents were there, making for a quick public comment period.
Linda Baum suggested that the library board think twice before making any transfers and make the township committee prove it’s been fiscally responsible.
“In my opinion, the town committee needs to be answering whether they’ve prudently managed money before they come looking for more,” she said.
Although the board was reluctant to tap into years of savings, trustees called the economic times “desperate” and made the move to show good faith and help relieve taxpayers while saving jobs.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but in desperate times you have to do things that you find undesirable and uncomfortable,” Trustee Marjorie Cavalier said.
Many on the board argued that the agreement was the result of negotiations between leaders who were charged by the board to find a middle ground. And the $500,000 transfer was what they agreed upon.
“Yes, times are difficult,” Gabrielan said, “but I think they have the prospect of becoming more difficult for the library.”