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The Pioneer

Residents Left in the Lurch after the West Orange Public Library Pushes Completion Date- Again

Money trouble, supply line snags, and budgeting issues make residents question if they’ll ever get their library back
Joseph Fagan

“This town seems to be run by jokers” comments Facebook user Pam Gennari Sinishtaj, after David Cubie, the director of the West Orange Public Library (WOPL) released a statement on Wednesday, October 18, that upset many West Orange residents; the WOPL is pushing back its completion date. Again.

Joseph Fagan

Community members have been without a fully functioning library location since January 31 of last year, and the public has since been yearning for the completion of the new facility. The public library, which had originally been located at 46 Mt. Pleasant Ave has been knocked down and moved to a new location at 10 Rooney Circle, where community members have been promised a new and improved “21-century” facility that will provide West Orange residents with updated technology, increased space, the capacity to host more events and offer “better amenities” and “usable space.”

Of course, the promises the WOPL has made to the community so far remain strictly as such: promises. The WOPL board had initially projected in a newsletter that the date of completion for the new facility would be sometime in “late spring” of 2023. This date, however, was pushed back further, to Mid-October after the library was hit hard with supply chain delays that caused heating and ventilation systems to be back ordered and shipped in early September. West Orange Mayor, Susan McCartney, responded to the project’s delay in September stating, “The inconvenience is only temporary, but thankfully the improvements of a new state-of-the-art facility will be permanent in serving the needs of the community.” McCartney applauded the diligence of the library staff and urged the public to be patient as the project neared completion.

The problem is, it’s still not done and residents are growing impatient and frustrated, especially after WOPL’s director, David Cubie, released his recent statement. It alerted library patrons that the Library would yet again be pushing back its completion date from mid-October and even past November 1. “Unfortunately, November 1 is most likely not a realistic time frame,” Cubie wrote, crediting a hefty checklist of finish-line necessities including “construction-related items and inspections” for the delay. “We will continue to work diligently to open as close to that date as possible,” the director wrote. Now over a month after that date, residents are still waiting for the doors to open.

Additionally, the library annex at 80 Main Street, which had been functioning as an additional temporary resource for residents closed on October 27th. The annex had been hosting small events and providing some materials for patrons from early March up until October 27th. Over the summer the library also held youth-oriented programs and workshops like a “Teen Needle Felting” workshop and “Zoom Balloon” dance parties for children in the cafeteria or Gym of Liberty Middle School. Now that school has started, the library has limited access to school grounds such as Liberty Middle School or the Tarnoff Cafeteria at West Orange High School. With the annex closed as well, residents are deprived of many of the library’s most beloved resources.

The WOPL typically offers kids, teens, and students an abundance of resources that support and guide them through each educational experience. For high schoolers, the library is especially important as it provides teens with volunteer opportunities and small communities to explore interests. The Teen Advisory Group (TAG) run through the Teen Services Department of the library is a group available to active teen members of the library (age 14 and up) that allows teens to plan and promote teen events, develop the “Teen Zone” in the library, and suggest YA reading material for the teen section. Participation in TAG also counted toward community service hours.

The WOPL also offered other teen volunteer opportunities and youth-oriented roles at the library including organizing and shelving books, volunteering at children’s events, writing reviews for YA literature, and participating in read-alouds.

TAG has continued to meet without a physical meeting location, however, the interactive experiences and youth-led events have been limited due to construction.

Outside of volunteering opportunities the library provides technological resources for West Orange residents. 94.8% of households in West Orange have access to a computer in their homes, and 89.4% of households have a broadband Internet subscription in the town. Despite these high numbers, it is important to note that with 16,977 households as of 2021, about 882 households may still lack access to a home computer. 1,799 households may also lack access to a broadband Internet subscription. Without a functioning library, hundreds of households and West Orange Residents lack access to basic technological resources, such as printers and computers, that were previously provided for free via the WOPL. Not to mention the many adult classes that taught residents important information about taxes and skills like civic responsibilities.

West Orange Public Library

Meghan Murray, a librarian at a different library, and a West Orange resident, expressed her disgust with the township’s handling of the library relocation and her sympathy for library staff writing on Facebook, “None of my criticism of this project is directed at library employees. I continue, however, to be thoroughly disgusted with how our elected officials sold our town library without a care for the impact it would have on our community or any apparent understanding of the role a public library serves within a community.” Murray went on to describe the events that once strengthened the community of West Orange including “ story hours, crafts, holiday and cultural celebrations, summer reading, ESL classes, senior events, magazines, book clubs, movie nights, teen clubs, STEM activities, homework help, computer labs, printers, workshops about citizenship and taxes, and a safe space where everyone in the community should feel welcome.”

Murray continues, “None of this makes any sense, aside from corruption, ignorance, and a lack of care for the citizens of West Orange from our town leaders and elected officials. I am so ashamed of our town when other local librarians ask me what the heck happened to our library,” Murray explains how the new location is far from accessible and the whole project has created a poor reputation for West Orange. Murray concluded, stating, “as is usually the case with civic and political corruption, the most marginalized within the community are the ones who are most negatively impacted.”

From photos and reports the WOPL appears to be very close to completion. As of early September, shelving and millwork had been installed along with furniture, signifying that nearly every other aspect of construction had been finalized. A video released to the town’s YouTube page showed books being shelved, and new chairs and tables set up.

The problem of completion lies in the financial aspect. Cubie announced, to the shock of many residents, that “the township was not able to cover all of the costs” of the project due to a “30% increase in construction costs” since the plans and estimates were drafted in 2019. The project was originally expected to cost $6.2 million, a cost that was divided between grants and town partnerships.

The WOPL was to be supported not just by the $598,217 in town funds but also by a $3,098,217 Library Construction Bond Act Grant and aid from private developers who contributed $2.5 million to the construction project. These collective financial contributions were expected to “complete the full needs of” the project. However, even with these finances, the library project is costing more than initially budgeted.

“While exciting times lie ahead for the West Orange Library, we request and require our community to play a significant part in its transformation,” Cubie wrote, implying the need for public financial aid. “To bring this vision to life, we are reaching out to each of you for support. Every contribution, whether big or small, will help fund these innovations and many more unique additions,” the director adds, “With your generous, tax-deductible donations, we can truly make the West Orange Library a vibrant hub of learning and community spirit.” The statement then linked the library’s donation page.

The Library Board of Trustees, nor Cubie explicitly mentioned how far off budget a 30% increase in construction costs would set them. Even so, the projected cost per square foot before recent setbacks was $203 per square foot; with a total gross square footage of 30,538 feet, the cost would be around $6.2 million (the projected project cost). A 30% increase would make the cost per square foot increase by $60.9, so the total cost of renovating 30,538 square feet would be $8,058,978.2. About $8 million, and $2 million over budget.

The WOPL is a municipal library which means that the majority of its funding comes from property taxes, additional funding comes from donations, and collected late material fees. Municipal libraries also receive some state aid which depends on many factors including town population, and material collection/staff size. Additionally, the library receives funding from annual federal allocations and private grants.

Joseph Fagan

In March of 2023, the NJ Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he designation of the library as an area in need of redevelopment [was] invalid.” The township argued that to best provide for the community redevelopment was necessary; the court ruled in the opposition’s favor (West Orange Resident, Kevin Malanga) that the WOPL did not meet Local Redevelopment and Housing Law’s (LRHL) redevelopment standards. Despite this ruling, the WOPL continued its renovation project because the court ruling did not have the power to “[prevent] the township from achieving that commendable goal.” Even so, the court ruling last March raises questions about additional state funding. If the WOPL did not meet the LRHL standards would this make it even harder for them to acquire necessary funding to compensate for raised completion costs?

If this is the case, tax dollars alone would likely not be sufficient to cover the remaining $2 million, at least not before the end of the year. The library tax levy makes up just 1% of municipal taxes. In 2023, $2,212,554.02 in taxes went to the WOPL, without adjustments to tax allocation it would take about a whole extra year to raise, in taxes alone, enough money to complete the library relocation project.

With this being the case, it seems that the library is focussing primarily on community donations and public aid to make up for the remaining costs. Community members voiced their frustration on Facebook after the library released their update.

One, Myriam CB, stated, “Asking for donations after spending tax dollars for this and missing every single deadline is really something else.” Another, Nevra Cihan-Halulu, stated, “Missing budgets/deadlines is definitely such a big miss that it should [be] formally looked at for review,” Cihan-Halulu went on to affirm the inevitable delays in projects or over-budget costs, at the same time questioning the township’s reaction to such issues, “Things can be over budget or have delays but a revised action plan should be in place right away” she says. Other commenters slammed town officials for their lack of accountability and mismanagement, calling the handling of the issue “utterly flabbergasting”, “shameful”, and “a disgrace”. With no new updates, residents have no choice but to wait, in the meantime relying on virtual sewing classes and the occasional trip to another Essex County Library.

A special “tour” for library members has been scheduled for December 10th, however, no official opening date has been announced.

The Pioneer reached out to Cubie and the Board of Trustees, yet without a response, questions remain. Are there any additional resources to pull funding from other than community donations? Has the project delay caused any changes to employee numbers? If the library doesn’t open soon, is there a capacity to reopen the annex? And for many, most importantly, when will West Orange get back their library?

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