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Relief that $125M for Upgrades to NJ Libraries Finally on the Horizon

Pent-up demand for improvements; officials expect to be swamped by applications from across the state

Library
Credit: Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay

It could be at least six more months before New Jersey libraries get any money from the $125 million bond issue voters approved 21 month ago, but local officials are pleased that the process for determining who will get money finally is underway.

State library officials expect to be inundated with applications because the state has not provided capital funds to libraries in two decades.

The State Librarian is taking comments through August 30 on regulations implementing the bond issue, which will provide money to upgrade and modernize libraries across the state. Local elected officials and librarians have been waiting for the proposed rules, which fill roughly seven pages, since the passage of the bond question in November 2017. Sixty percent of voters supported the spending.

“We are very happy the process has started,” said Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the NJ Library Association. “Libraries throughout New Jersey have been watching this very closely.”

According to the proposed rules, libraries will be able to apply for funds to buy new technology, make their buildings accessible to people with disabilities, add public meeting spaces, make necessary safety repairs and provide additional public services, including support of education, employment, welfare, job training and civic services.

Improving access is a big issue

“All people of New Jersey should have equitable access to New Jersey’s public library facilities, collections, technological resources, and services regardless of age, color, race, religion, or creed, socioeconomic level, or disability,” state the rules.

The proposed regulations note that a 2014 survey found numerous libraries lacked ramps or elevators or were otherwise inaccessible to the disabled. That same survey also found a number of libraries were at least 75 years old, had not been renovated in a quarter of a century or more and had safety issues. The state library is still compiling responses to a more recent survey, but as of mid-May, 60 libraries had responded with plans to spend $185 million.

Close to 300 county, municipal and joint libraries are eligible to apply.

“There has been a tremendous amount of interest,” said Tina Kersztury, who worked on the last library bond issue and is now serving as a consultant to the state library. “We are expecting many applications from many, many libraries. We know libraries have been waiting a long time.”

The regulations would cap at $350 the amount of spending per square foot that libraries could seek for new construction and $200 for renovations, “to promote the most prudent and efficient use of state grant funds.” The state will fund half the cost of projects that are approved and meet those caps, while local libraries are required to match that. That means the total investment is likely to exceed $250 million.

Ability to serve community in emergencies

Among the criteria that will be used to evaluate applications are how well the plans meet current and future needs of the community, whether they meet state-of-the-art energy efficiency and health standards and their ability to serve the community during times of emergency — for instance, providing electricity to allow for phone charging when power is out due to a major storm.

Woodland Park’s library needs would seem to meet all the criteria the state has set. Linda Hoffman, the library director, said the facility needs improvements to make it conform to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and currently holds adult programming in the children’s room due to a lack of space.

Woodland Park library plan
Artist's rendering of major renovation and expansion planned for Woodland Park library

“We have outgrown our space and cannot serve our patrons at the optimal standard in which a public library should operate,” she said. “Currently, our library does not have a meeting or programming room … Waiting lists for all programs have become the norm due to inadequate space. We need more space to provide essential services to our residents, such as career assistance, job training seminars, English Language Learning classes, citizenship classes, and civic services.”

Hoffman added that the library makes an ideal emergency resource center in a borough that contains two rivers that are the cause of major and flash flooding.

Once the rules are finally adopted, which won’t happen before the end of September, the application process is likely to continue through the end of the year. Then the applications will be evaluated and the president of Thomas Edison State University, who oversees the state library, will decide which projects to recommend for funding. Finally, because the money will come from general obligation bonds, the Legislature must vote to provide the funds to the libraries. It could be next spring before the first money is awarded. That means construction won’t begin until more than two years after the successful vote.

Why it has taken so long

“We know we won’t be seeing any money until sometime next year,” Tumulty said. “Hopefully there won’t be any further delays.”

Both local officials and lawmakers had questioned why it was taking so long to promulgate the regulations. State library officials said the change in administrations was at least partly to blame — Gov. Phil Murphy was elected in the same November 2017 election.

Cranbury library plan
Artist's rendering of new library planned for Cranbury

Funds from the state’s last bond issue, the 2012 Building Our Future Bond Act for state higher education construction, were appropriated just nine months after voters approved that question.

“Although it has taken much longer than anyone anticipated, I am grateful that the opportunity is available,” Hoffman said. “I am relieved … that the process is in motion, since our building continues to deteriorate: broken seals on our windows, doors that need replacing, furniture getting weary, paint fading, and all of the many other weaknesses of an aging building. It is difficult making decisions whether or not to replace or fix issues, barring safety concerns, until we know if the funding will be available for this project.”

Hoffman added that further delays in the process “can result in a possible rise in construction costs and that is always a concern.” On the other hand, she said the extra time has allowed them to raise more money for their match.

Kathleen Peiffer, deputy state librarian, said that while completing the proposed regulations took time, working with various agencies and the governor’s office was important.

“It really was time very well spent, even though it slowed the process,” she said.

New Jersey officials are working on another bond issue at the same time. This one, approved by voters last November, will provide $500 million to fund a variety of public school projects: expanding career-training facilities at high schools and county colleges, upgrading school security, and protecting students from lead in the drinking water of school systems around the state.

It’s unclear how long it will take to get these regulations written and funding out to schools.

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