I, along with quite a few Scotch Plains residents, attended last week’s standing room only Town Council meeting where many people spoke in opposition to the budget cuts proposed for the Library. I and 4 other members of the public also attended the public budget workshop on March 19th when the Library cuts first came to light and at that time the Library director objected to the cuts, as did a member of the public. The Council has been aware of objections to the cuts to the Library's budget since the day they were first made public.
Contrary to statements made at the Council meeting, it is clear that the Town budget most definitely does cut the Library’s budget. On sheet 34 of the Town’s budget summary (which is publicly available) it is plain as day that the budget is being cut by about $109,000. There is no way to claim otherwise. The cuts are not rumored or imaginary nor are members of the public misinformed of the facts. Neither are the Library cuts forced on the Town by state requirements. State law establishes a minimum standard for library funding, based on the assessed value of real estate in each town. Towns can, and many do and as did Scotch Plains in past years, fund their library in excess of the state minimum.
The proposed Town budget gives the Library the minimum level of funding required under state law ($1,285,000). Compare that to Summit, a town of pretty much the same population as Scotch Plains, where the minimum level of library funding is a million dollars higher. Do we want a ‘minimum’ library? I don’t think so. But that’s the number in the budget.
We heard at the Council meeting that $67,000 in money from 2012 was “discovered” by the town’s financial officer. A big deal was made of that. The Library had $67,000 in its accounts at year end, but $55,000 is already earmarked to pay 2012 bills. How can someone responsibly treat all of that $67,000 as somehow being available to cover 2013 expenses? Isn’t that double counting? Won’t that leave the Library short come next year when it tries, but can’t, pay end-of-year bills?
We also heard that the Library had state aid money available. At last week’s Library trustees meeting, the Library confirmed that it does have about $90,000 in unspent state aid. That money, which sits with the Town and is part of the Town’s “surplus”, has been built up over the years. And yes, you can argue that the Library ought to spend that money. But the Library’s own financial people have in past years held that money in reserve in case emergencies come up (such as broken sewer pumps or air conditioners). They’ve decided that this is a prudent thing to do. The Council (or at least the governing majority) seems to think that they know better. Against the advice of the Library’s own financial people who are familiar with the Library’s finances, the Council wants the Library to use those reserves and run the risk that unexpected expenses come up later.
The Town budget is increasing by about $415,000 compared to last year, and is increasing by about $820,000 over what was spent last year. At the Council meeting there was a lot of talk about how times are tough. Yes, they are but not so much for the Town budget. It is increasing quite a bit, largely because of salary increases. The Town is also increasing spending for lawyers, engineers and other service providers. Since spending is going up for some things, either we need more revenue or we need to cut spending elsewhere. The Council ought to have a serious discussion of the Town’s priorities rather than engage in accounting gimmicks and using in one year reserves which have been carefully built up over time. And many Scotch Plains residents, it seems, think the Library ought to be a higher priority than do several members of the Council.
Very truly yours,