N.J. libraries must wait for access to much-needed bond funds

It’s been 18 months since New Jersey voters approved $125 million to upgrade municipal and county libraries, but officials are still teasing out the regulations.

In this May 16, 2016 photo, students work in a new quiet reading room at Princeton University's Firestone Library  in Princeton, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

In this May 16, 2016 photo, students work in a new quiet reading room at Princeton University's Firestone Library in Princeton, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Eighteen months after New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved spending $125 million to upgrade and modernize libraries, rules for distributing the money are still incomplete and local officials won’t get any money until early next year.

Municipal and county library officials have been calling the State Library and their state legislators asking when they would be able to apply for funding. There’s pent-up interest to expand and improve technology because it’s been two decades since the state provided bond funds for library capital needs.

While it can take some time for the state to issue bonds after a vote, the issuance of the library bonds is taking longer than expected and significantly longer than the state’s prior bond issue, the 2012 Building Our Future Bond Act for state higher education construction. The state proposed regulations to implement the $750 million bond act in January 2013, less than three months after voters approved the bonding. Most of the projects were chosen later that spring, funds were appropriated in early August 2013, and colleges and universities began breaking ground on projects soon after — just 10 months after the vote.

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In November 2017, about 60 percent of voters approved the Library Construction Bond Act. Kathleen Peiffer, deputy state librarian, said the regulations needed to implement that bond act are “not quite done yet” and will likely be ready by early summer. That will be more than 19 months after the vote and it’s only the first step in getting money to local officials. It is expected to take at least another seven months before the president of Thomas Edison State University — who oversees the State Library — will be able to choose which projects to fund.

Peiffer blamed at least part of the delay on the change in administrations that occurred as a result of the 2017 election. The same electorate that endorsed the library funding put Phil Murphy into the governor’s office in January 2018.

Taking time to match Murphy goals

“It was passed at the end of Gov. Christie’s administration,” she said. “The administration of Gov. Murphy did not particularly have any knowledge of this coming in. We were dealing with all new people, who had to be acquainted with what this bond act was about.”

One source said that officials in the new administration have taken time framing the program to match Murphy’s goals.

Alyana Alfaro, a spokeswoman for Murphy, said administration officials have been working out the details of the regulations expected to be issued this summer.

“The governor’s office has worked closely with the state librarian to ensure that this process has been implemented thoughtfully and appropriately conforms to the existing framework under which libraries in New Jersey must operate,” Alfaro said. “The Administration wants to ensure that as many libraries as possible have the opportunity to participate.”

Lawmakers asked Mary Chute, the state librarian, when money would be available during budget hearings earlier this month. Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) said, “Local libraries want to know.”

‘…much more complicated than it looked’

“We’re making progress,” Chute said. “This is much more complicated than it looked based on the bond … There are numerous agencies and entities that are involved in it. We have indeed been working on draft regulations probably since November 8, 2017.” That was the day after the vote.

The written reply from the State Library to questions from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Service about the lengthiness of the process states that the president of TESU had approved a draft of the regulations in March 2018. “Although the State Library and TESU are the two entities listed in the Bond Act, there a number of other State offices and agencies critical to the running of this program. The State Library is working with those offices now to advance the draft regulations,” the response states.

Among those other agencies, according to Peiffer, are the Office of Administrative Law, the Attorney General’s Office, the bond counsel and the state treasurer’s office.

“Now we’re working with people in the governor’s policy office,” Chute said. “We’re going to see progress quite soon.”

Officials at local and county libraries will be happy to hear about the progress. News reports have indicated that some of the libraries hoping to expand or upgrade their facilities or technology include those in Englewood, Paterson, Montclair, Trenton, Medford, and Burlington and Cape May counties.

Improving access for people with disabilities

A survey of members conducted last October by the New Jersey Library Association found that close to 140 libraries were planning to expand or renovate facilities to make them accessible to the disabled in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Only 12 percent indicated they would definitely make improvements without state funding.The State Library has been conducting its own survey. As of last Thursday, 60 libraries had responded and were seeking to spend $185 million in total on projects.

“Libraries throughout New Jersey are anxiously waiting for the state regulations to be announced so that the grant process can begin,” said Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the NJ Library Association. “We know many libraries are going to apply. This funding is a critical piece to make these projects possible.”

Under the terms of the bond act, the state will provide half the cost of each project, with local libraries covering the rest either through county or municipal funding, money raised by their “friends of” organizations, private donations or other means.

Some libraries have been working to raise money in anticipation of applying for funding under the act. Some facilities are in old buildings in need of repair, while others have steps that make them inaccessible to anyone using a wheelchair. Many have put off doing work because they could not afford the high price tag on their own.

First time since 1999

This is the first time the state will be making money available for libraries since voters passed the last library bond act in 1999. That provided $45 million to fund 68 projects throughout the state and generated $260 million in overall economic activity. Since then, the use of technology and the internet has exploded, and some libraries have not been able to keep up with all the changes or have patrons regularly waiting to use one of their computers.

Under the terms of the bond act, the state will issue $125 million in general obligation bonds to fund half the cost of the library projects. The bond act had bipartisan support.

New Jersey’s more than 400 public libraries are well-used, with people making more than 40 million visits a year to them. An estimated 40 percent of the facilities are not fully ADA compliant.

Once the regulations are proposed in the New Jersey Register, as required by law, local officials will still have something of a wait for funding. For one thing, there’s a 90-day period to receive and respond to comments before the rules can finally be adopted.

“I just want to be clear to all of those communities that want to know that there is still a complicated timeline once the regs are approved to be posted for public comment,” Chute told legislators. “Then we intend a 90-day window for applications. We’ve discovered in the past that any time we offer something to our libraries, because of their system of working with boards that have to approve different stages of a process that to give them a month and a half or two months just isn’t enough to get the approvals they need.”

Peiffer said it’s likely the president of Thomas Edison will not get a list of projects to approve until mid-January.

Then, Chute said, “hopefully there will be a lot of building going on.”

Another bond issue

New Jersey officials are working on another bond issue simultaneously. Last November, voters approved a $500-million bond issue 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.

“The bond act called for funding for multiple projects, and state statute contemplates an application process for all projects funded from these bond proceeds,” said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

The state education commissioner is responsible for reviewing and approving all types of projects, with assistance from other authorities. For the county vocational grants, he is to consult with the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development. For school security projects, it’s in consultation with the Schools Development Authority. For the water infrastructure projects, it involves consulting with the Commissioner of Environmental Protection.

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

“We are still involved in that process,” Yaple said. “We don’t have anything to announce yet, but we hope to have more detail soon.”

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