COMMENTARY: Closing library hurts Watchung both now and in the future
Residents of Watchung – like all Americans – have a stark choice this November. On the national level, we will decide whether we want accountability and a Congress that fulfills its duty to provide a check on the president. On the local level, we will decide whether to continue to operate the town the way it has been run for years or inject new blood.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than the decision about the Watchung Library. The Borough Council voted to shut the library down because they could not – after many years of debate – come up with a plan to fix or replace the building, which needs significant repairs. The library is a huge asset to Watchung and closing it makes no sense on many levels. It not only is fiscally irresponsible but undermines the value of the community over the long term.
First, closing the library doesn’t save taxpayers money. State law requires a library. Even If the town has no library, residents and business owners would pay $827,000 into the county system and get nothing back, except to force residents to travel to another town for library services. Closing the library mismanages our tax dollars. The town gets at least a million dollars in value than the $827,000 it spends on the library.
No library means we will get fewer services for the same amount of tax dollars. Think of it this way: the choice is pay a large property tax bill with more services or a few dollars less with fewer services. If I were buying a $20,000 car and the salesman told me for another $50 I could get a better braking system, a more fuel-efficient engine and high-quality seating with better resale value, I would take that deal.
This last point is critical. Watchung residents get few benefits for their property tax payments relative to nearby towns with similar demographics. Watchung doesn’t pay for garbage removal or have a community center or a pool, or have public transportation stops. The library is the only indoor space open to the public on a regular basis. During Sandy and other storms, Watchung residents have had to use the services provided by other municipalities to get warm, charge their phones, etc. One would think that would have led to some urgency by our council to develop a plan to prevent that from happening again, but no action has been taken. If we take away the one facility residents can regularly use, what’s the point of even maintaining the fiction of a town? If the council goes down that road, they should just fold Watchung into Warren or another town and be done with it.
Building a new library is expected to cost roughly $58 per household per year, but that could be reduced if the council were to take advantage of the state’s $125 million pool of funds that will finance up to half of library construction. Yet the council refuses to do so.
Some people will say that not enough people use the library or that they don’t personally use it. Contrary to what some believe, Watchung residents do use the library. Visits to the library typically number 3,000 per month, with over 4,000 items checked out per month.
And one must not personally use the library to benefit. Studies show that libraries add to property values. This is especially true in our crowded suburbia, where people looking to buy houses are comparing the relative taxes and benefits to nearby communities. Warren, Long Hill and Berkeley Heights are among the local municipalities that have built (or are building) modern libraries and public spaces for residents to use. Watchung without a library is much less attractive, especially for families with school-age children.
As part of my job as the director of U.S. research for an international commercial real estate firm, I frequently write and talk publicly about housing demand in metros across the country. On a national level, the trend is about “live-work-play,” which refers to the preference of people to live near amenities such as recreation and food and easy access to work. Suburban towns must deal with the fact that they are competing for residents with cities (New York, Jersey City, etc.) and inner-ring suburbs (Westfield, Montclair, etc.) that have more of these amenities. As older homeowners move to warmer climates or downsize, they must be replaced with younger buyers, who are less interested in the picket-fence, car-oriented lifestyle of their parents than they are in services. Watchung will be less competitive without a library, which would lead property values to erode over time.
At the recent Borough Council meeting, council members who opposed the library had two points. One was repeating the phrase “shared services” as if it meant something substantive. In reality, shared services would mean we pay $827,000 per year for the right to use Warren’s library. That’s a right we already have, so adopting that as policy is akin to negotiating to give away your watch for the right to look at the clock on the wall.
A slightly more substantive point was a plan to build a community center on the site of the firemen’s exempt hall, which would provide a community space and could be used for library programs (but not an actual library). This plan sounds appealing but makes little sense upon reflection. If there is limited money, why spend it on a building that would be closed except on special occasions instead of a library with community meeting space? That way we would have more services and not throw away the money we send to the county.
This gets me to the most important point: the debate demonstrates a long-term lack of imagination on the part of the town council (other than Mayor Stephen Pote, who has been marginalized). The discussion centers around the marginal change in the next year’s tax rate, and whether individual members of the council or their friends use the library or are more interested in baseball fields. Council members say they are interested in finances, but they refuse to even apply for the limited-time-offer state grant money, which shows that the decision is political and not based on the interest of the town or its residents.
The fact that there is virtually no discussion about the long-term health of the community is disturbing. It shows that the people running the town have no vision, no plan and are making no attempt to improve the lives of people whom they represent. We need intelligent and forward-thinking people to run the town. We’re not getting that now.
By PAUL FIORILLA-
The writer, a Watchung resident, is Director of U.S. Research for Yardi Matrix, a commercial real estate services firm based in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he oversees the publication of national and metro outlooks and white papers. He was a journalist for 25 years, winning several awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors for his work at the Hoboken-based financial newsletter Commercial Mortgage Alert.
from the Echoes-Sentinel 8/23/18