RED BANK: LIBRARY AVERTS PREDICTED CRISIS

rbpl 1 102113Dire forecasts made by library board members who resigned a year ago have not panned out, officials say. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

[Article updated with post-publication comment below]

By JOHN T. WARD

HOT-TOPIC_03Nearly one year after a mass resignation by trusteees over budget issues that they said imperiled its future, the Red Bank Public Library hasn’t collapsed into the river it overlooks.

Nor has it been swamped by red ink. In fact, the institution is doing quite well, says its new director, Elizabeth McDermott, who recently accepted the job on a permanent basis – after first rejecting it – largely because of the turnaround she helped guide.

“The building didn’t fall down,” McDermott told redbankgreen earlier this month, following a meeting at which the board approved a new $1 million budget. “In fact, we’re growing.”

mcdermott 031915 2New library director Elizabeth McDermott at a board meeting earlier this month. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

Six of the library board’s eight members resigned last April 12, two weeks after the borough council voted to reverse layoffs that had been implemented in a desperate effort to head off what board members foresaw as an imminent fiscal crisis.

In a parting shot, one of those who resigned, board president John Grandits, told the council, “I don’t see how you’re going to be open in November or December.”

But Mayor Pasquale Menna, whose administration had characterized the library’s trustees as “intransigent” and “hostile” to borough hall guidance, immediately re-staffed the board. Since then, the 77-year-old institution has gradually regained its footing, he and other members say.

The library ended 2014 with a surplus, officials said. Jobs and hours of operation that had been slashed to save money have been partly restored.

“We’ve met all our expenses without any difficulty,” said board member Stephen Hecht, who oversees the finance committee. “We haven’t done any magic here.”

More jobs and more hours are on the near-term horizon, and the library’s offering of books, CDs and computer services is growing, board members said.

“As you can see, the sky is not falling,” Menna told redbankgreen.

The current board has benefitted, its members acknowledge, from a smaller full-time staff, which has meant reduced personnel expenses. Salary and benefit costs, which eat nearly half the library’s budget, are down six percent, largely because of staff shrinkage and the retirement last year of the library’s most senior employee.

The library’s $1 million spending plan, shrunk by about $36,000 from 2014, has also been aided by growth in the town’s ratables, which under a state-mandated funding formula dictates how much the borough government hands over to the library each year. That’s up $10,000 from last year, to $678,648, officials said.

The library has restored Saturday and Thursday night hours. It plans to add more hours in coming weeks, once it completes the hiring of two-to-four part-time staffers, McDermott told the board two weeks ago.

Sara Hansen, who heads the reconstituted board, calls the prior board’s dire forecasts “a mystery. We got the budget balanced strictly on the borough’s [state-manadated] allocation. We’ve been able to add to the collection. We’re doing good.”

The board is also in the process of hiring a fundraising consultant and another to help it come up with a long-term strategic plan. Before she was named as a replacement trustee last April, Beth Hanratty had quit as president of the Friends of the Red Bank Public Library, a fundraising arm, over the absence of such a plan.

The size of the 2014 surplus will be finalized after accounting for retroactive salary adjustments under a negotiated two-percent wage increase and some other bills are paid out, Hecht said.

Donations, including a $10,000 contribution made by Red Bank RiverCenter as thanks to the library for volunteer staffing at two major food festivals, have added to the kitty. And there’s more to come. The library is one of two designated beneficiaries of the Mayors’ Charity Ball, scheduled for May 1 at the Oyster Point Hotel; the other is the Parker Family Health Center.

“This whole community has come together to support this institution,” said Hecht.

The budget-balancing occurred without touching four bequests totalling nearly $245,000, Hecht said.

Grandits did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

McDermott, who oversaw the New Jersey collection, was one of three full-time library employees laid off by the board – and one of two quickly rehired after a public outcry. The other was children’s librarian Sira Williams.

During a search for a new director to succeed Virginia Papandrea, who retired last spring, McDermott told the board she would not be a candidate, because she wanted to focus on the history collection. But having played a key role in what she views as a successful turnaround, she changed her mind and quietly accepted the post in January, she told redbankgreen.

The library’s 2015 budget is expected to be up for public comment and council approval on April 22, as will McDermott’s contract, which was still being finalized, officials said.

[Update, March 31, 2015: Following publication of this story, redbankgreen received the following comment from former library board President John Grandits:]

I’ve spoken to some of the former members of the Library Board. We are proud of our time with the Library. We feel we had a complete understanding of the budget and none of us feel that the concerns we felt were exaggerated.

I have not kept up with recent budget changes and to my knowledge most of the former Board member have not either. We will not comment on current events.

I believe all of the former board members feel the Library is a necessary and vital part of this community. We wish the new Board every success.