Three Doomed Jersey City Library Branches May be Granted a Temporary Reprieve, but ‘Nothing’s Been Written in Stone’

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Under a plan touted by council members at last night’s City Council meeting, the Jersey City Free Public Library’s three neighborhood branches would stay open until June 30 of next year, buoyed by additional city funding. But the deal is not yet complete, and the city’s business administrator would not definitively say the city will allocate the extra money to the library.

Faced with a budget crisis, the library system announced last month that it would close its three neighborhood branches by December 1 of this year. The closures, which were slated to begin with the West Bergen Branch on October 1, were halted after the city and the library began working on a possible solution to save the branches.

At last night’s council meeting, more details emerged about that plan.

According to Ward B councilman David Donnelly and Ward F councilwoman Viola Richardson, the three branches will likely stay open until June 30 of 2011, buoyed by an slight uptick in city funding.

Donnelly said the city has agreed to give the library system $7.395 million this year, up from the $7.075 million previously agreed upon. The library believes it can use that extra money to keep the branches open until the end of the fiscal year. However, as we reported earlier this week, the library continues to move forward with other budget cuts, including the furloughing of all workers for two days each month and pending layoffs.

But Jersey City business administrator Jack Kelly seemed reluctant to allocate precious city money to the library if it can’t make more systemic changes that may allow the branches to stay open past next summer.

Kelly applauded library managers for making changes to their own health care plans, moving from the previous traditional plan to a less-expensive Direct Access plan. It’s a move library leaders may try to replicate with its workers, but since the employees are unionized, that would require clearing additional hurdles.

Still, though, Kelly said that while the library’s leadership says they can make $7.395 million work to keep the three branches open, they haven’t provided him with any cost or staffing projections that prove it.

With that in mind, he would not definitively say the city will allocate the extra money to the library.

“Nothing’s been written in stone,” Kelly said.

Richardson warned that even with the possible extra funding, this was the “minimal amount the libraries can function on,” and said that patrons should still expect to see many programs eliminated. She also said it is likely that New Jersey will decrease the minimum amount that municipalities are required to give to libraries, which could make it even harder for the library to find adequate funding in the next budget cycle, as the city itself continues to grapple with a financial crisis.

The branches, then, face an uncertain future beyond June 30, and they may end up closing next summer instead of this winter, a fate acknowledged by Donnelly.

“You have to fight for priorities in a budget every year,” he said. “This is one of the right things to fight for.”

We have put out a request for additional comment from the library on the cost-cutting moves and the possibility of additional funding, and we’ll update the story if we receive it. But given the fact that the library has recently decided to stop speaking to JCI on the record after we refused to remove user comments critical of the library from a previous article, comment for this story looks unlikely.

Jon Whiten contributed to this report