MontClairVoyant: Greenlighted ‘Greenway,’ and Library Treated in Mean Way

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Does the way some Township Council members have been treating our library remind you of a Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

Lots of Carrie-ing On

I wouldn’t go that far. Maybe more like an H.P. Lovecraft story, if the H.P. stands for Heavy-handed Politicians.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Could you recap the situation?

Sincerely,

Summarize and Shine

The town, in a waste of $31,500, authorized an outside audit of basically non-existent problems with the library’s budget. The auditors looked at a budget draft, not a final document, during part of their investigation. Municipal funds were withheld from the library. The town, as suggested by the auditors, threatened to take away some of the library’s autonomy. Agatha Christie wrote “And Then There Were None” about the number of residents supporting all this.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Your timeline seems a bit fuzzy, and the Agatha Christie reference is weird, but I get the gist. So, what’s the latest?

Sincerely,

Not Chris Christie

When the Township Council saw how unpopular its actions were — even among some of its own members — it semi-hit the brakes at its November 15 meeting. It also announced the release of $245,638 the library had been waiting for since August, thankfully not insisting that it be dispersed in pennies placed one at a time through the book-return slot.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Meanwhile, Gov. Murphy announced November 12 that the state will buy the abandoned rail line that runs from Montclair to Jersey City in order to create the Essex-Hudson Greenway. Good news?

Sincerely,

Recreation Situation

Yes! Nine miles AND 135 acres. Walking AND biking. Mac AND Cheese. Batman AND Robin. Simon AND Garfunkel. Pride AND Prejudice. I should shut up AND shut up now.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

AND stay shut up. How many towns will this trail/open space run through?

Sincerely,

Path Math

Eight: Montclair, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny, Secaucus, and Jersey City. One town for each day of the week.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

The Beatles song “Eight Days a Week” was not meant to be taken literally. Is there some connection between those eight towns in addition to being linked geographically?

Sincerely,

Locale Lowdown

Take one letter from each town name and you get the word Millercy — the academic study of why Henry James’ novel “Daisy Miller” was published in book form the same year (1879) that future Yankee manager Miller Huggins was born.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Wow — didn’t know Millercy was a thing! Don’t forget Arthur Miller, who collaborated with Herman Melville on “Death of a Whale Man.” Any drawbacks to the future Essex-Hudson Greenway?

Sincerely,

All My Sums

Seems mostly positive, but it might bring extra unwelcome gentrification to neighborhoods abutting the trail. I fear more sightings of Latte-Infused Sushi Nestled in Flaky Croissants — a fear shared by many gastroenterologists.

DEAR MONTCLAIRVOYANT,

Can you tie together the two disparate themes of today’s column? You know, Montclair’s library and the eight-town trail…

Sincerely,

As You Bike It

Well, part of the trail was presciently immortalized by Stephen King when he wrote “The Green Mile.”

 

 

Dave Astor, author, is the MontClairVoyant. His opinions about politics and local events are strictly his own and do not represent or reflect the views of Baristanet.

 

 

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24 COMMENTS

  1. “Municipal funds were withheld from the library.”

    Yes. You summed it up nicely.
    It wasn’t some grant funding. It wasn’t some CDBG pass-thru funding. It was discretionary, hyper-local (Montclair pockets) taxpayer funding.

    Now, what almost all residents outside of Montclair Center don’t appreciate is that Montclair Center has to have its budget approved by the Council. This is a detail that escapes the N.B. crowd. This is a detail that escapes Councilor Yacobellis & some of his colleagues. I’m not sure why how that happened. They considered themselves, at a minimum to be connected, and often think well-informed.

    Why would we have our Council review the line items of a almost identical level of taxpayer money for one and not for the other. Would we accept irregularities for the Montclair BID?

    They need to step up their game and step of their standards to meet their talk. Or not.

    That’s the thing. I enjoy a good drama. A little spice is good. But, bottomline, no one really cares Jake.

  2. It is fascinating. Control the narrative and one is assured to prevail. Senator Joseph McCarthy was one of this country’s GOATs at this. Sen Joe Kennedy is a disciple and one of the present day practitioners.

    E.R.M. got a lot of credit for giving voice to ‘doing the right thing’, but Fred Friendly was the man.

  3. Frank, checking spending is fine for the town to do. But do it right. Do it internally (the town has financial people on staff) so as not to waste taxpayer money. Don’t take a draft budget as the final word. Don’t try to wrest control from people who know more about the library than the Township Council does. Etc.

  4. David,

    For a Progressive, you’re not that progressive, nor consistent on fundamental issues.
    You want to exclude public access & oversight of the additional taxpayer dollars the Council gives the MPL.
    You want to exempt the MPL from OPMA and OPRA.
    You want to exempt them from publishing financial information to their website readily accessible to the general public.
    You want to exempt an appointed Board, appointed by the Mayor, after you just made a big deal about an appointed BoE?
    You want the MPL Board to report on how well they are exercising their fiduciary responsibilities…to themselves?

    The current situation is both bodies are doing way too much blathering and not enough sharing & coming clean. And, there is a reason for this that should concern anyone who cares about this town. The problem is a both bodies are playing to their groups – most of whom don’t have the time or desire to get dragged into it. Everyone want a quick solution and someone to choke down the road if it should go to hell in a hand basket.

    Lastly, Russo & Schlager, Price-Abrams & Yacobellis to a lesser extent, know full well about using their committee system to expedite their political priorities. Yes, the committee system has been increasingly abused and decisions blowing up. And only when some blow up do the Councilors say the process is flawed. Otherwise, it’s the Montclair mantra of The Ends Justifying The Means.

    Anyway, hugely entertaining and highly distracting.

  5. PS: It was a temporary budget, not a draft budget.

    When the Bellevue Branch reopens I will go read up on the definition of seriously duplicitous actors.

  6. Thank you for the comments, Frank.

    To repeat, I believe the Township Council has every right to look into the library budget. But, to also repeat, do it right. The Council did not do it right.

    As for the performance of various appointed boards, the BOE and Board of School Estimate have frequently not done well in recent years. Those overseeing the library have done better.

  7. I apologize for being so snarky towards you.
    The mishandling of establishing the fiduciary boundaries has been a smoldering issue for many years and got ratcheted up starting last Winter. The Board’s handling of the Bellevue Branch is the primary source of my and, I think, the Finance Committee’s anger.
    I personally think after years of waffling priorities and vision the Board should divest itself off the Bellevue Branch. It is clearly the albatross around their necks and an impediment to their formulating a realistic strategic facilities plan…and the required municipal capital funding.

    PS: the MPL piggybacks onto our umbrella insurance coverage so we will be financially impacted by the preventable flooding that caused the Bellevue Branch’s boiler to be damaged and the branch’s closure.

  8. Just to be clear, our library is audited annually by an external certified municipal auditor, in accordance with NJ state law. Also in accordance with state law, the library is overseen by a Board of Trustees who has fiduciary oversight, and all meetings are open to the public. Why it was deemed necessary to spend $31,500 for our “town auditor” to do a forensic audit is unclear, since no irregularities have been identified by independent auditors in previous years and especially because the library has been operating with *less* money this year than each of the past five years. So it is not like its budget has increased and one might wonder why. On the contrary, the library got less money in 2021 than it got in 2015, in actual dollars. And if we were funding our library like we were in 2000, the budget would be over $4.7 million. So it is rather surprising to see so much focus on the library when its budget has gone down, and not on other sectors of our government in which costs have increased by 20% or more in the past 5 years.

  9. Thank you, Eileen, for your comment, the excellent points, and all that valuable information!

    The well-run library has indeed done a great job despite budget challenges — and the challenges of COVID. It deserved and deserves better from town officials.

    (I can’t begin to count the number of pleasurable hours I’ve spent in the main branch since moving to Montclair in 1993. 🙂 )

  10. Not a problem, Frank. Just a sincere conversation. 🙂

    I hear you about how keeping the Bellevue Branch can make things more complicated, but I think it should be kept for various reasons — including it being in a lovely historic building, it giving residents a second library option that allows more of them to walk to the library, etc.

  11. C’mon Eileen B,
    I know you to stand for more transparency & accountability from our government as does the prevailing public sentiment – the BoE, the Police Dept, Debt Management, etc. I also know you to be comfortable with numbers. What you are not known to me for is perspective.

    Our sleepy little bedroom community is all grown up now. The old ways off managing our finances are being replaced with increasing financial professionalism and acumen. Every time people cite it seemed to work well in the past, there are more than a few times when we were asleep at the wheel.

    What the library folk don’t say that from 2011-2014 the mandatory minimum library levy went down 8%. The Jackson Council stepped up with discretionary funding to not only make up the shortfall, but give the MPL an increase equal to or above the municipal tax rate and the NJ State Cap rate. They could do this because library funding is excluded from the NJ 2% Tax Cap. They stepped up by increasing the discretionary funding to the library 450%. They did this as they simultaneously had the daunting task of reducing our debt burden. I think the library people & their friends are ungrateful.

    Let’s put aside the historically challenging 2020-2021 budget period where we had to dip $7MM into our reserves to maintain our rate of property taxe increases.

    Now, looking at the 2014-2019 period, the minimum library levy rebounded 20%. The discretionary funding still increased, but only a measly 9%.

    To summarize, the level of our library funding has increase 40% from 2011. 8 years. This is one reason of many why there is a big focus on the library. There is some very justified resentment because the library folk haven’t been good partners. Quite the opposite.

  12. Dave,

    The building exterior is actually more historically protected under private ownership even if the historic use is replaced by another use.

    Maybe under one scenario I’ve offered previously, it becomes a school library allowing us to optimize classroom space in Buzz Aldrin. Maybe St Cassions & Lacordaire could partner on a shared library concept. There could be stipulations to preserve key aspects of the interior while bringing it up to 21st Century standards. It least it would be assured of being utilized full-time. The historic preservation card is a red herring.

  13. And to beat this horse one more time, the library folks didn’t include the $145,000 in capital funding the Jackson Council gave the library in 2019. I obviously did. So, let’s follow the adage “trust, but verify’ when dealing with our Friends.

  14. Frank, I’d rather not see a building like the Bellevue Branch in private hands. A building like that should be enjoyed by the public, and I hope it can get the fixes it needs.

    As for your private-schools-related suggestion, I’m not a fan of the concept of private schools in general (I much prefer public schools), so I’d rather not see Montclair-based private schools have anything to do with the library building.

    I think your 11:33 a.m. response to Eileen was a bit caustic, but I’ll await her response if she chooses to make one.

  15. Thanks, Dave– I have followed your column for years and appreciate how you call attention to town matters that we all should probably be paying more attention to 🙂 I was raised on libraries and consider them a vital institution in any community.

    Frank, thanks for your comment– I’m trying to figure out what you mean by perspective– you don’t like that I chose 2015 as a reference point and would prefer 2011? So should I say something like “Annual library spending is down from 2008, 2009 2010 levels and up from 2011?” It is true that the library took a large budget cut in 2011 and spending levels have never gotten back to pre-2011 levels. But I’m struggling with “40%” increase– asking with all sincerity– can you tell me the numbers you are looking at? For reference, I’m looking at $2.5 million in 2011 and $3.1 million in 2021. That’s not 40%. Or maybe you want to exclude last year? But again, up from 2011 and down from 2010, (and down from 2015, as I said) so I guess we can choose different perspectives.
    Of course, if you want to include the “perspective” of inflation, the library is operating in 2021 with funding even below the 2011 budget cut year.
    But I don’t need to quibble over library numbers–agree that we should be responsible fiscal stewards, and so does the state which is why library audits are required. But again, the library is operating in 2021 at pretty much its lowest level of funding in this century, when you factor in inflation, so not sure why a “forensic audit” was so urgent. Forensic audits are indicated when there is suspicion of fraud, not when you are looking to justify spending cuts or are upset about a branch being closed during the pandemic.
    I’m not an expert, but in my experience if you are interested in reducing a budget, typically one would look at the biggest cost drivers first.

  16. And just to confirm– I am talking about looking at the biggest cost drivers of the municipal budget, if you are concerned about the municipal budget.

  17. You’re welcome, Eileen, and thank you for the kind words — and the additional defense of the library and additional explanation of its budget situation.

  18. Eileen,
    The audit was necessary. It is forensic in the sense the auditors were not hired by the target organization. It is like corporate executives, sports teams, etc who constantly use warfare terminology. And yes, the consultants probably get to charge a higher rate.

    Speaking of which… I self-audited my numbers. I had an irregularity. I mixed capital funding in with appropriations. It happens.

    Now, my composition is suspect at time, but I clearly put aside the 2020-2021 period. I was focusing on the 2011-2019 period and broke that period in two. However, I clearly said from the 8 year period from 2011. That is 2019. You clearly have gotten up to speed on the finances so I don’t need to quote the numbers except that, excluding the mistake above, my revised % is 35%, not 40%.

    I was schooled by some smart people about how to look at budgets. I wan’t a good student, but I have an eye for anomalous data. Yes, everyone focuses on the big drivers. They should. The smart people taught me how to look at the smaller cost centers because the costs add up quickly. They also taught me that the 80/20 rule rarely applies to budgets. The also taught me to beware of the year over year percentage increase as justifications in themselves. Basically, challenge assumptions & bias. They taught me that inflation, like any other challenge must be overcome, e.g. thru efficiencies, innovation and, yes, support the core business and contract elsewhere. Or you can make it a zero sum discussion.

    The overreaching point I’m making is that when the data is published, transparent and challenged, you get a better budget and ultimately a better product.

    If you want to do so more digging, look at the 2013-2016 and the 2018-2021 Strategic Plans. Don’t forget to look at the March 2018 $17MM Renovation Plan with all the new programming. Does $17MM count as a big driver?

  19. Dave,

    I think my tone was own par with the tone I have heard Eileen B using to publicly address the Council. It certainly had some harsh facts that needed to be shared. I assumed she prefers my unvarnished responses over preliminary niceties. If she doesn’t, I can do nice.

  20. Frank, in all honesty, your posts are a little hard for me to follow, so I apologize if you thought things were clear and to me they were not so clear. So perhaps it is better that we not engage with each other here since we are talking past each other.
    But in your most recent post you *very clearly* state that I addressed the Council in a way that was disrespectful. I take issue with that and would defy you to find an example of my being disrespectful that is not just in your head because I was saying something you didn’t agree with.
    Again, not sure this is the best use of either of our time. Be well, and have a nice holiday season.

  21. Eileen,

    I have never found you to be publicly disrespectful to the Council or others.
    I consider your public speaking style direct, confident, and intellectually challenging. David was the person who suggested my post were caustic. Rather than argue, I simply said my tone of that specific post was similar to one you have used.

    I am often hard to follow. My writing skills contribute to this, as does my vocabulary. But, it is mostly how I think that is disjointed. I find I communicate better when I follow the “less is more” rule. I’m not even bring in the emotional considerations.

    I will say I will not own the stuff that you do or don’t do that could make our dialogue productive. Don’t say “in all honesty”. It’s passive-aggressive. I do p-a, too. So, I rarely call people for it.

    I am hard to follow, but my words are there (I do try to pick them thoughtfully) and I think people read what they want to read. We all do it. But, any re-reading should attempt to take a contrary bias.

    In short, I agree we should not engage with each other.

  22. Thank you for this comment, Frank. I read your comment earlier this morning before I had my coffee, so perhaps I took offense where I didn’t need to take offense, so I appreciate your explanation.
    I don’t know you, of course, but I “know” you to be a concerned, interested, resident dedicated to Montclair over many years. And for that you have my deepest respect–I really appreciate that you have taken such a deep interest in our town and do appreciate hearing your point of view, even when I don’t always agree. Often, when I hear you, you make me think. And that’s a high compliment coming from me.

    I read now the news that the director of the library has resigned and I consider this unfortunate. Whatever one’s opinion of the audit was, it was clear there were communication issues and many misunderstandings involved.

    I wish you a restorative and joyful holiday season.

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