NJ voters OK’d library funds in ’17 but won’t be spent until ’20
Talk about overdue library borrowing.
Nineteen months ago, New Jersey voters approved having the state borrow $125 million to help municipalities and counties build and expand libraries. But it will probably be another year before that money is spent – a delay that is generating a bipartisan eye roll at the Murphy administration.
Proposed rules for the competitive grants still haven’t even been issued, though that should happen in July. Grant applications should be out by the end of the year and are due to be filed in early 2020. Then, a committee will recommend a list of grants to the state librarian, who will forward an approved list to the Thomas Edison State University president, who will send it to the Legislature, which has final say.
State Librarian Mary Chute said at a Senate Education Committee hearing Monday that it took until October to get the attention required from seven state agencies and that while a lag was expected as part of last year’s turnover of administrations, it took longer than anticipated.
“Of course, we’re not really normally in the grant business, we’re in the library business,” Chute said.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said “it just appears that no one was driving the bus” to push the library spending.
“I, too, believe in the saying that libraries build communities. I just don’t understand why we have to wait three years for this to happen,” said Ruiz, the committee chairwoman.
State Sen. Sam Thompson, R-Middlesex, said that “what we find inexcusable” is it has taken more than a year and a half just to get the regulations proposed.
“This was sold to the Legislature and to the public as an urgent need out there. But it would seem that the actions that have taken place suggest it was not that urgent of a need,” Thompson said.
“We agree with you,” Chute said. “This was priority one for us from Nov. 8 on, 2017. … We moved everything we could as quickly as we could. But it was a matter of getting attention from some of the other entities that needed to be weighing in on it. And they weren’t responding to calls for action from the State Library.”
Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, said libraries are getting frustrated that costs for projects are rising. Some moved forward with work that couldn’t wait, such as Flemington putting a new roof on its library, she said.
Tumulty suggested that future borrowing proposals could include a deadline for when bonds must be sold “so that there is an expectation that this can’t lag as this has.”
“I appreciate that,” said state Sen. Joe Cryan, D-Union. “Although I don’t think anybody thought eternity would be one of the options here, which is what it feels like.”
“Honestly, for librarians and people that have been asking in our district, it’s a year away, minimum, in the real world,” he said.
Chute said the length of time needed for the committee review will depend on the number of applications.
She said a May survey of libraries found a need for at least 170 projects, with a total cost of more than $170 million. The bond is for $125 million, with local governments required to put forth at least the same amount in matching funds.
The $450 million in borrowing voters approved last year for vo-tech schools, school security upgrades and school water infrastructure repairs isn’t as far behind as the library spending, though that spending, too, probably won’t be done until mid-2020.