WATCHUNG, NJ - The Watchung Borough Council voted on Thursday night, before packed chambers and over 500 watching on Facebook live, to close the Watchung Library and explore redevelopment of the library site on Stirling Road.
After years of discussion and debate, the council decided not to renovate the existing library or construct a new library. Mayor Stephen Pote and Council President Robert Gibbs did not support the decision. Council members Maria Alberto, Stephen Black, David Mobus, William Nehls, and George Sopko voted in favor. Resident Bill Houston live streamed the meeting to the Voices for a Better Watchung Facebook page.
The council also voted to explore providing library services through shared service agreements, although the Watchung Library is already a part of the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey, which currently has 10 libraries. The borough pays $800,000 annually to be part of SCLSNJ, and will continue to do so even if the Watchung Library closes.
“I can’t understand how we would still pay $800,000 a year and lose a service,” said resident Diana Churchill. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t think that’s fiscally responsible.....that makes no sense to me at all.”
Watchung voted down the construction of a new library in a 2012 referendum, although they did support a $125 Million state referendum for municipal library projects in 2017. The estimated cost to build a new library in Watchung is $3.14 million, which Nehls said does not include expenses like landscaping and parking that would increase the cost.
Gibbs said that the library serves as a center of the community and that Watchung is missing the opportunity to apply for state funding for a new library, at 50 cents on the dollar, available through the $125 million in state grant money approved in 2017.
“Watchung deserves to have its own new library right here, “ Gibbs said. “Closing our long standing library seems to me to be just one more reason for folks to look at Watchung, compare us to surrounding communities, and decide that we’re really not much more than a traffic circle, two lakes, and lots of stores on Route 22.”
Pote, a long time advocate of the Watchung Library, said, “to not have a library serves no one. To take one away even worse. Every resident has in fact been disenfranchised if our great library is taken away. Everyone. Everyone in this case loses something."
Pote asked the council to consider going to referendum on the issue rather than deciding by council resolution, to no avail.
Long time resident and advocate for renovating the library, Virginia Hartmann said she was ashamed to be part of a town that believes a town is better off without a library than with one.
Meanwhile, just a mile down the road, Warren is currently looking to use the state grant money for an outdoor reading area.
Resident Sondra Fechtner said https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRdZp5OF-A8&sns=em
An overwhelming theme of those who spoke was the need for a community center, or gathering place, located in Watchung. “Warren’s library might be nice, but it’s not in Watchung and wasn’t built with Watchung’s residents in mind,” said Gibbs.” It’s not within our community, it’s in Warren’s.”
In the Watchung Spring/Summer Newsletter, Mayor Pote writes:
I continue to voice a different position with some members of Council who at this time are now discussing the possibility of closing down the Watchung Library. Shared services with Warren would mean that Watchung annually will still pay an $800K County Library Tax, but would no longer have a physical library of our own. As I have stated for years, to enhance the lives of our residents and build a greater sense of community in our town, a strong library (technology and resource community center) presence consistent with the means and needs of Watchung should be built. A library is still a basic service, but a state-of-the-art library provides an incredible potential investment return to all of its residents, which I have always maintained far outweighs its cost (average cost - $85 annually; potentially averaging ~$40 annually after government matching) The Council had previously agreed to fund $2.1M of the library; preliminary design plans had been drawn;and a unique opportunity has been given to municipalities to apply later this year for 1:1 match funding through the recently passed $125 Million NJ Bond Referendum to rebuild our State's libraries. Watchung is in a fantastic position to build a library and community center that will benefit our Watchung community of all ages, for generations to come; State fund matching would provide an incredible tax break to our residents. And a strong library presence would greatly enhance Watchung's infrastructure and property values.
Watchung heavily uses its library. Watchung also pays its taxes and deserves its fair share of this State library funding; we need to pursue this State grant money when the application becomes available this fall; I know that many of our neighboring towns will be applying for additional library monies to enhance their libraries' already strong presence in their communities. With a majority of our town governing body at this time not seeing the need for a strong physical library presence in this town, Watchung will lose a cornerstone upon which municipalities build a strong sense of community for their children, teens, adults, and seniors. I urge you to reach out to your Borough Council now and express your concerns about this dramatic and consequential change indirection.
Council emails are as follows: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, DMobus@watchungnj.gov, GSopko@watchungnj.gov, firstname.lastname@example.org