By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
LONGPORT – The borough’s Library Board has asked the Board of Commissioners to expand its facility in Borough Hall, but Mayor Nicholas Russo said the board’s “aggressive” programming may be more than the borough can handle at this time.
Library Board member Dolores Wilson, who chairs the board’s Strategic Planning Committee, asked the mayor Wednesday, Sept. 20 to clarify the status of the board’s February request to expand the library to other areas of Borough Hall, which houses municipal offices, Police Department and the library.
In a Sept. 15 letter to the board, Russo said the building was not easily retrofitted and that the municipality’s priority is to provide for the health and safety of residents.
“The spaces are needed to continue to provide the services we provide,” Russo said.
In 2016, the voters agreed in a referendum to sever its relationship with the Atlantic County Library System in favor of having their own municipal library. At the time, residents and public officials agreed that it could offer more programs at a lower cost than what was being offered in the library facility on the first floor of the 99-year-old, multi-story brick building.
Funding for libraries is set by state law, requiring the municipality to collect a third of a mil or 33 cents on each $1,000 of equalized value of all assessed properties for library services. As the ratable base has increased over the last several years due to new construction, so has the amount of taxes set aside for library operations.
When the switch to a municipal library was made, the commissioners agreed that it would retain funding not being encumbered for library services over a 10-year period. The first two years after the new local library was formed, the borough was required to continue funding the Atlantic County Library System. Funding not used to run the library over the following eight years would be set aside in a fund that can be used for the library or placed in the borough’s operating budget for other purposes.
At the time of the referendum, Longport’s library tax was paying the county $623,000, but it only cost $280,000 for the county to run its library.
On Wednesday, Russo said that the library tax collected has increased 22.06% since the library was created and the local library’s budget increased 55%.
The library’s budget for 2023 is $808,000, with an estimated $700,000 in surplus.
“It’s good to have an aggressive program but the other day you had a movie that was only attended by four people,” he said, recommending the board approach Margate for use of the Dominick A. Potena Performing Arts Center for events with larger attendance.
The borough has considered expanding to the second floor Centennial Room, which has been off limits to the public since the 2019 discovery of mold. It also considered expanding the library to a pad on the south side of the building, but that location would be problematic for the NJ Department of Corrections, which requires police departments to have a secure area called a “sally port” to transfer prisoners safely.
“We only have so much space,” Russo said.
The library board requested the installation of an elevator to comply with ADA requirements, which could cost as much as $800,000, and space on the second floor of the Atlantic Avenue side of the building, which currently houses municipal offices and would require municipal employees to be relocated to another area of the building.
“I don’t know how much more aggressive you can be because we just don’t have the room here,” Russo said.
Wilson said 3,000 people attended programs at the library so far this year and 80 people attended Bingo, and 220 people attended a concert.
“We have a lot of people attending these programs and we do need dedicated space,” Wilson said.
The library board has the funding to pay for the elevator, she said.
Commissioner Jim Leeds reminded library personnel that the savings from operating a local library was to be used at the end of the 10-year period and returned to the taxpayers in some form.
“My understanding is the funding belongs to the citizens of Longport and is not yours to spend,” he said. “I don’t think we have the right to say you can use those funds.”
Commissioner Dan Lawler agreed that the Centennial Room has ample space, but that an engineering study would be needed to determine the cost of rehabilitation.
“I need more information,” Lawler said.
Additionally, Russo said the borough is facing “heavy duty costs” for other pressing capital issues, such as a state-mandated requirement to replace lead and galvanized steel water service lines throughout the borough by 2031.
Additional capital projects being considered for the 2024 budget and beyond are road projects, HVAC improvements at Borough Hall, installation of new holding cells in the Police Department, replacing bulkheads, installation of pump stations to reduce flooding and improvements to the 11th Avenue turnaround and Public Works building.
“The taxpayers are facing some issues as we move forward that we don’t have control over,” Russo said.
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