Lazy government at work in Phillipsburg library dispute

MAY 7 update: The mayor and the library board began a discussion today about solving this financial issue. Probably no simple fix, but this is what should have happened at the beginning. This is not an issue that cropped up on May 4. It has been a few years in building. But, this could lead to resolution.

UPDATE: Follow up to this post: The Phillipsburg town council cut the library funding Tuesday (May 4) , saying they had no choice to seek the library surplus. Of course they had a choice, but the GOP majority had already made up their mind. Classic move: Defund a service so it can not meet its core mission, then declare in time that the service is no longer needed because it can not meet its core mission. They made no effort to find an alternative solution. One council member suggested P’burg residents could use the county library in the next town over.

There is a war in Phillipsburg, N.J., over the fate of the public library.


With a regained Republican majority on the town council in the past couple of elections, the library, founded  about  100 years ago, has been the target of a persistent campaign by the council majority to – no polite way to put it – shut down the library.

In 2020, the council even floated a referendum to ask voters if they wanted the local library to close. The referendum never made the ballot.

The council is trying again, this time with drastic budget cuts, on Tuesday, May 4 with an item on the agenda seeking to get back $160,000 from the library board, while the town’s 2021 budget shorted the library funding by about $200,000 of the library’s request. The smaller budget would result in staff layoffs and reductions in services.

In a reported response, one town council member said that the laid-off workers would be better off collecting the state’s Covid-enhanced unemployment benefits  than  working.

In other words, Alex, I’ll take Tone Deaf for $100.

Two things: the above is a  truncated  version of the situation, and though I am not a resident of Phillipsburg, I use the library’s services and am a member of the library’s writer’s group. During the pandemic, library staff helped us maintain the group online with the use of the library’s Zoom account.

That was one such effort made by staff to meet the needs of the library’s users.

Here are a few points.

For years the Phillipsburg library was in essence the western Warren County branch of the Warren County library system. For years the closest county library was in Franklin Township, on the campus of  the county’s regional technical and vocational high school. Security issues forced the county to find a new site of the library. The new site is on Route 519 in an abandoned industrial building.
The new county library is a wonderful new building, but it is bordered on one side by  the area’s warehouse district and on the other side, by shopping center row. The county road is heavily traveled and has no sidewalks. You need a vehicle to get there and I’m sure many Phillipsburg residents use the facility. This current mess is not a fight with the Warren County library.

The county terminated its arrangement with the Phillipsburg library, and the town had to agree to a multi-year payback plan to settle the account.

The relationships between town governments and library boards are at times rocky. The library board is an independent agency that in many cases preceded the local government’s involvement in the  library. But as these feuds have surfaced, they usually are quickly smoothed over because the value of the library is a thing to be protected.  I sense in the current Phillipsburg mess that might not be the case.

The Phillipsburg Library is in a residential district and at the apex of  routes walked daily by students attending the town’s high school and middle school.

Phillipsburg is only one of two Warren towns that does not collect a local library tax. which average about 5  cents per $100 of property assessment. For me that means I pay $9 a year to support the county library because we do not have our own public library because we use the Phillipsburg library. (Hmmm).

We have seen this approach before.

I covered Morris County for many years. One election found a couple of Republican budget cutters were elected to the county commission board and took aim at the county library. One of the new members opined that no one used the library anymore because of the Internet.

That idea died aborning.

As should the Phillipsburg library mess.

As an example of public support, a resident made a donation to the library to maintain one of its online services.

That should not be a signal to the town council that library supporters should be the sole source of funding. It is a public library, after all.

I like Phillipsburg.

Readers of my  Frank Nagler Mysteries, set in Jersey, know I have an affinity for old industrial towns that are fighting back after years of decline.

Such is Phillipsburg. Like many Northeast U.S. industrial towns the transition from that economy to a new one had been slow.

But it takes work to make that transition.

We moved to this region in 1991 and watched P’burg  officials get in their own way as Easton, Pa., a sister city across the Delaware River began to prosper.

We watched as it took the state threatening daily fines before the P’burg council agreed  to tear down its mold infested former city hall and police station. The police had sued to force the town to designate a new police HQ.

The project may have been out out to bid, but the old PD is still there.

Oddly, that building is on the same municipal lot as the library. How much would that lot be worth to a developer if both municipal uses were removed? Just asking.

A grocer was forced to close in the western part of the town creating a food desert.

Is  the council pressing the new owners for a new improved grocery store at that site, which would serve a large section of the town? Not that has been reported. I would use the store often. Needing  milk, I would, return home after spending $50.

Things are changing in P’burg.

A new high school, new housing, new investment, new businesses filling in old spots. An extremely popular local railroad attraction that brings in thousands of visitors during its season. An old industrial site is home to huge warehouse development after near 30 years of trying to build something there.

Yes, there is an outcry that too many warehouses are planned. But the old industrial site on a state highway a mile or so from the interstate highway seems like a good place. That said what does not seem like a good development is a council  favored warehouse plan along the Delaware River in a residential neighborhood that has no direct access to any highway, meaning trucks would be negotiating  narrow town streets to serve the site.

After covering government for decades, I can say I’ve seen this before.

It’s lazy government.

It’s cronyism, ideologically agenda driven, self serving, forgetting who you represent government.

The town council is right to want to attract new business and news residents to Phillipsburg.

But they will still come, if a reasonable way to pay for the library and its services is found.  Residents like parks and recreation fields and libraries, even if it’s just the idea of them. Not bad for $9 a year.

Otherwise your sales pitch is: Come to our town, we just closed the public library.

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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