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RED BANK: LIBRARY LAYOFFS SPARK OUTRAGE

sira-williams-031214-500x375-2732164Laid-off children’s librarian Sira Williams embraces colleague Jane Eigenrauch after Wednesday night’s council meeting. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot-topic_02-220x137-6360205Hours after more than half the staff of the Red Bank Public Library was laid off, supporters packed a borough council meeting Wednesday night demanding a financial fix that would maintain the 77-year-old institution’s hours, programming and jobs.

Taking turns at a microphone to recall their own childhood days at the library or of watching their children learn to read there, a string of speakers pressed the council on how the library could find itself facing an estimated $131,000 operating deficit this year, and what the governing body planned to do about it.

“I can’t believe a town as wonderful as ours is facing this crisis,” said Sally Gordon or Windward Way, noting that Red Bank’s cultural assets led to its selection by Smithsonian Magazine as the third-best town in America in 2012. “I urge you, because you have the knowledge and the power, to figure out how we can get past this crisis.”

elizabeth-mcdermott-031214-500x375-5791383History librarian Elizabeth McDermott, who also lost her job Wednesday, addresses the council. (Click to enlarge)

Library director Virginia Papandrea confirmed to redbankgreen in an email Wednesday afternoon that three of the institution’s eight full-timers and all three part-timers had received or were about to receive pink slips.

Of the remaining five employees, one is a bookkeeper, and one is scheduled to retire in the fall. At a recent meeting of the library board of trustees, Papandrea herself said she is contemplating retirement this year, though borough Administrator Stanley Sickles said no official notice had been filed.

Facing a payout of more than $70,000 in unused sick time to librarian Jane Eigenrauch – who outted herself at the meeting as “that employee” – and a drop in funding that the borough is obligated under state statute to pay into the library from property tax collections, the library board of trustees estimates the facility will come up $131,000 short this year.

It was not immediately clear, however, what effect, if any, the layoffs would have on that forecast.

Councilman Mike DuPont, who heads the administration’s finance committee, said he would support the borough picking up pension costs and sick-pay costs for the library this year, as it did last year. He said the committee was also “thinking outside the box,” and investigating whether the state Department of Community Affairs would allow the town to exceed the statutory payment to the library, which is run by an autonomous board of trustees.

Under state law, municipalities are required to dedicate a fraction of a penny for every dollar’s worth of combined property value in town to the their libraries. In Red Bank, that payment has fallen from $741,106 in 2011 to $668,788 for the current year, Papandrea said.

DuPont attributed the drop to the effects of tax appeals in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. He said he expected aggregate property values to rise this year.

Papandrea, who has characterized the library as “top-heavy with full-timers” for the size of the community it serves, was not present at the meeting, which was attended by five board members. In her email, she told redbankgreen no further layoffs are anticipated this year.

Here’s what Papandrea, who became director little over a year ago, said of the layoffs:

“We have to go lean this year in order to [allay] a worse and even disastrous situation down the road. Staff reductions come on top of numerous other economy measures that we have taken, including cutting back on purchases for the collections, not replacing staff who have left over the past year, postponing needed maintenance, cutting hours, etc. We drew heavily on savings in 2013 just to remain in operation while we sorted out and streamlined a complex and fragmented budget structure that up to that point did not provide clear information on our financial status. If we continue to draw on dwindling savings, there will be nothing left and we won’t be able to operate in 2015. In effect, we are avoiding a future closure by carrying out these staff reductions.”

Residents and four borough librarians, two of them newly jobless, spoke with emotion about the importance of preserving the library as a center of culture and community life.

Sira Williams, laid off after three years as children’s librarian, choked up when she cited the impact of curtailed programming on “so many families who don’t have computers at home.”

“It’s where I first began educating my children,” said Teicia Gaupp, of Tower Hill Avenue. “Any parent of young children will know the pleasure of play dates in the children’s room.”

“It breaks my heart,” said Eigenrauch, the borough government’s longest-serving employee, also speaking of children’s services. “I don’t know how else to put it. Sira Williams – she’s made that room come alive as I’ve never seen it in 37 years.”

Several suggestions for generating quick cash were floated. DuPont said he would match up to $1,000 in contributions made by fellow council members. Russ Crosson, owner of the Coffee Corral on Drs. James Parker Boulevard, proposed a week- or month-long fundraiser in which local businesses would dedicate a portion of sales to the Friends of the Red Bank Public Library.

The cutbacks will have an immediate impact, as the library was not expected to open until 4:30 p.m. Thursday, though it would stick to plans to host several events in the evening, Papandrea said.

Less clear, however, was the lineup for coming days. Eigenrauch said the library would not open on Saturday, when Eileen Moon, author of the newly published “Legendary Locals of Red Bank,” was scheduled to read from and sign copies of her book.

“Not all service desks will be covered during open hours in coming weeks,” Papandrea said. “The remaining staff and I will be working together to come up with a new schedule of hours to serve the public.”

Moon’s book, said laid-off history librarian Elizabeth McDermott, might not have been possible if not for the photos archived at the library and reprinted in the book.

In her email, Papandrea said the layoffs resulted from deliberations that began in October and led to meetings with borough officials and representatives of Communications Workers of America Local 1034to find out what we could do within policy and union rules.” Following the meeting, however, several library employees questioned whether the layoffs resulted from “illegal” emergency meetings of the trustees, and whether the notices had been handled properly.

CWA shop steward Mary Kouvel could no be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

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