County takeover looks set to save Camden's libraries

Posted: August 10, 2010

Camden's libraries, which received national attention last week when it appeared that budget cuts would force them out of business permanently, are to be saved.

Camden City Council is expected to approve a resolution allowing the Camden County library system to take over the three facilities without a citywide vote, officials said.

"After learning that the library board's only solution was to close our libraries, I knew I would not let that happen," Mayor Dana L. Redd said Monday.

Details are to be worked out, but city residents would pay an annual levy to be part of the county system, Redd said. The arrangement would "expand library services for city residents," she said.

Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. did not rule out closing one or more of the city branches and laying off all employees under the plan.

The announcement came at a news conference in City Hall with county officials and representatives of the Camden School District, but without members of the city's library board of trustees, who had been preparing to shut the libraries after Redd cut funding by about two-thirds last month.

With less than $300,000 in its coffers, the board had said that it would have to close the 105-year-old library system, which receives more than 150,000 annual visits, by the end of the year. It would lay off all 21 employees and donate, sell, or destroy the libraries' 87,000 books.

Such a move would have been unprecedented by a multi-branch system, according to the American Library Association.

Board President Martin McKernan, reached on vacation Monday afternoon, said he knew nothing of the mayor's new plan. At the news conference, Redd said, "We have talked to" McKernan.

"The mayor has not contacted me," McKernan said. "My hope would be that the library continues to provide the same level of service that it has been providing."

Frank Fulbrook, a library board member in the audience at the news conference, called the county takeover a land grab.

For more than a decade, there have been rumors and reports that Camden County officials sought to put an expanded county jail or courthouse on the site of the library's main branch on Federal Street downtown. The current jail and courthouse, both in need of expansion, are adjacent to the library.

"This was all a cynical ploy," Fulbrook said. "The county and mayor manufactured a fiscal crisis for the city libraries by giving us only $281,000, knowing we would have to shut down."

Redd's offer to the board for fiscal 2011 initially was about $281,000, $108,000 less than mandated by the state for municipal library aid.

Correspondence between Redd and McKernan shows that the mayor never offered the full amount, but she said more money would be provided if required to meet state regulations. It is unclear if the full $389,000 would have enabled a branch to stay open and the system to remain under city control.

Camden County Freeholder Ian Leonard, who lives near the main branch, rejected the idea of a land grab. This is simply "about a municipality wanting to join the county system," he said.

Leonard said city residents would have access to new courses, classes, and more books and that the fee assessed on all Camden tax bills would be minimal. "This is as basic as it gets in terms of shared services," he said.

But the downtown branch, along with a tiny branch in Fairview, could still be in jeopardy. The city's newest library, in Centerville, is least likely to close, since Camden County spent $4 million to build it a few years ago, and it is the centerpiece of a public housing project that Redd championed.

The mayor singled out the facility in her remarks Monday, and when announcing a new Mayor's Friends of the Library fund, she said the money would go only to the Centerville branch.

That could set up a geographic fight. Situated in the southern part of the city, the branch is five miles from neighborhoods such as Cramer Hill. Fulbrook said the downtown branch must be saved because it is most accessible by public transportation in a city where many do not own vehicles.

Uncertainty over the libraries comes as Redd intends to make 24 percent budget cuts across the board. Her budget, which will be introduced to City Council late Tuesday afternoon, could bring layoffs to the police and fire departments.

Camden's $28 million deficit is larger than the amount of money it collects annually in taxes, Redd said. And, though the city previously has survived with last-minute money from the governor's office, the state's own fiscal emergency and Gov. Christie's tight approach to spending mean "the days of Trenton bail-outs have come to a screeching halt," Redd said.

Once City Council, which generally supports the mayor's plans, approves joining the county system, the county library director and city officials will work on details. Camden would become the 27th municipality in the 37-town Camden County to be part of the county library system. Its residents would be able to borrow books from any branch; currently, they have to pay for borrowing privileges there.

In addition to teaming with Camden County, the mayor said she wanted to find public places, such as community centers, that could provide free Internet access. Many Camden residents do not own computers, so they look for jobs and submit applications online at the library.

Redd said she hopes the city school district can secure funds so that its libraries can stay open after school for students.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com.

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