N.J. lawmakers hope tax-return bill helps libraries

Sharon Furgason, director of the McCowan Memorial Library in Pitman, has had to get creative during tight funding times.
Sharon Furgason, director of the McCowan Memorial Library in Pitman, has had to get creative during tight funding times. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 11, 2014

PITMAN An abandoned factory sits on 76 overgrown acres in Pitman. Sony Music Entertainment used the space to manufacture compact discs until it cut its losses and left town in 2011, costing the area 300 jobs.

Every time Sharon Furgason drives past, the deserted lot reminds her why the library she manages has been struggling to stay open.

Furgason is director of the McCowan Memorial Library, a municipal presence on Pitman Avenue since 1961. Since the 2008 economic downturn, Furgason has been forced to watch public funding for her library diminish, in line with the state's library-funding law, which ties support to towns' average property value.

Pitman's property values dropped 5.75 percent last year, leading to a municipal library aid cut of roughly $20,000.

The reduction had Furgason and her associates backed into a corner: In October, the library stopped buying new books until funding was restored.

"It was extremely difficult to survive on our budget last year," Furgason said. "We had to stop ordering new media entirely."

On Thursday, she heard something to raise her spirits - a legislative measure that would encourage tax filers to donate to libraries.

The bill would set up a local library support fund that would pool donations earmarked on state tax returns.

"My family wasn't able to afford an encyclopedia when I was young, so we had to go to the library," said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D., Union), who sponsored the bill with colleague Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D., Bergen). "I want that opportunity to remain for children across this state."

The bill was approved Thursday in committee.

Details of how the money would be allocated have yet to be worked out, Quijano said in an interview.

She has sponsored bills that would allow taxpayers to donate to the Boys and Girls Club and the Girl Scouts through their tax returns.

Furgason said her library would be in even worse shape if it had not dipped into its small savings account, amassed mainly through member donations. She cited one particularly large donation in memory of a Pitman resident as the reason the library was able to begin buying new materials again.

"You need to get creative in an economy like this," Furgason said.

State law ties municipalities' minimum annual library allocations to the "equalized valuation" of properties in town, meaning library funding fluctuates from year to year according to the fortunes of the real estate market.

"When property values go down, you see a reduction in library staff, cuts in hours, purchases, and materials, basically anything a library pays for," said Bob Keith, a data coordinator for the New Jersey State Library in Trenton. "Things have been going down since the recession."

Keith said property values had dropped statewide in each of the last four tax years. According to the organization's figures, statewide property values dropped an average of 2.04 percent in 2013-14.

"We're always looking for more funding," said Karen George, director of the Atlantic County Public Library system. "We've had to be extremely cautious with our expenditures lately. We've had to freeze some positions temporarily."

George stressed that the libraries in the system were turning themselves into modern community centers that focus more on digital media and wireless Internet access than on hardcover books. George said foot traffic in the county's 11 libraries had increased due to a demand for free Web access. "We never seem to have enough computers."

Said Furgason: "If everyone in town could donate one or two dollars, even that would be wonderful. Every little donation adds up."


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