State Librarian: Funding From Library Construction Bond Act Won't Likely Become Available Until 2019

State Librarian Mary Chute said last week that the goal was to make funds available as soon as possible, but that the proposed rules were still being drafted.

TRENTON — Last November voters across New Jersey overwhelmingly approved allowing the state to borrow $125 million to help fund construction of new libraries and improvements to existing ones.

Six months later, libraries interested in making improvements are still waiting for criteria and regulations spelling out how to apply for the funding. The latest response from state officials is those rules won’t be ready until late summer or early fall, which means grants won’t likely be awarded until 2019.

State Librarian Mary Chute said last week that the goal was to make funds available as soon as possible, but that the proposed rules were still being drafted.

“I want to thank all who supported the passage of the New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act for their foresight in recognizing the value of the services that our libraries provide to New Jersey residents,” Chute said in a statement. “Our new and improved facilities will enrich the fabric of life in New Jersey and be a boon to New Jersey’s growing economy. This program is a tremendous opportunity to provide the residents of our state with the best facilities and public library services.”

The continued delay is being blamed on the numerous state departments and agencies involved, including the State Librarian’s Office; Thomas Edison University, which oversees the State Library; the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education; the Attorney General’s Office and Treasury.

“It’s par for the course as far as bureaucracy is concerned,” said Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, which led the campaign for the bond measure’s approval.

She said numerous libraries have inquired about when the bond money will become available and the delay in the funding could hold up some projects.

“I wish I could issue the bonds myself, but it’s not in my purview,” she said. “It is a little frustrating. The voters last November said they wanted to do this, and we were thrilled that they overwhelmingly supported (the referendum). But bureaucracy runs slow.”

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, was a sponsor of the legislation that placed the library bond referendum before voters. He said Thursday that he was disappointed by the delay but understands it.

His approved bill specified that the state funding should cover half a project’s cost, with the other half coming from the county or municipality that operates the library.

“It’s my hope that we will be able to move expeditiously in the fall because these voter-approved resources are sorely needed to bolster our state’s library system,” Singleton said.

The delay could prove to be a blessing for two Burlington County library projects that are in the planning stages. The additional time will give those projects more time to become “shovel ready” before the grant applications are due.

The first county project involves renovations to the county system’s main branch library in Westampton to create additional public meeting spaces, or “collaborative rooms” where organizations can hold meetings and deliver presentations.

Ralph Shrom, chair of the Burlington County Library Commission, said the intent is for the rooms to be equipped with all the technology needed for teleconferencing and computer displays. Early cost estimates are that the renovations might cost at least $750,000, he said.

“We’re really adhering to demand,” Shrom said. “A lot of organizations have asked us about available space.”

The other major project on the drawing board involves replacing the more than 40-year-old Pinelands library branch on Allen Avenue in Medford.

The township’s governing body recently approved the purchase of a 3.5-acre property off Union Avenue that it intends to use for a new municipal building and modern library complex.

“We’re getting ready to choose an architect so I can’t imagine we’ll be ready to move forward with plans until the fall,” Mayor Chuck Watson said Friday. “Hopefully, if the (grant funding) becomes available we’ll be ready to move forward.”

Both the main branch expansion and new Medford library project appear to be eligible for funding under draft criteria released by the State Librarian’s Office. Eligible projects include building a new public library building or expanding an existing building, acquiring land for a new library or expansion, acquiring and repurposing an existing building to become a library and making needed repairs or improvements at an existing library to make it more efficient or accessible.

Tumulty said funding will unlikely be made available retroactively for past spending, so some proposed library improvements are on hold until funding becomes available.

“It does put libraries between a rock and a hard place because you want to plan and put money aside,” she said. “But you can’t really go forward because you don’t want to jeopardize losing the opportunity to receive state funding.”

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