The tug of war between Medford Township and Burlington County over the Pinelands Library continues following a letter sent to the township from Freeholder Leah Arter, threatening to withhold shared services.
As an extension of the Burlington County Library System, the Pinelands Branch Library serves the towns of Medford, Shamong, Tabernacle, Southampton and Woodland.
“After review of Medford’s proposed revisions to the branch agreement for the Pinelands Library, I have arrived at the inescapable conclusion that your governing body, led by Councilmen Pace and Buoni, must be diametrically opposed to shared services programs in Burlington County, and most notably, the Burlington County Library System,” Arter said in the letter.
The programs threatening to be refused include emergency dispatch, emergency management, solid waste disposal and recycling, aggregate purchasing, pooled financing, community development, green energy grants and audits, recreation grants, farmland preservation and the animal shelter. Additionally, Arter is threatening to exclude Main and Church streets, both county roads, as part of a $7.1 million county repavement project.
“My initial reaction is that it seems like Leah Arter is offended that Medford taxpayers expect value in their tax dollars,” Deputy Mayor Chris Buoni said.
The county and Medford have been working to reach an agreement to cover $30,000 in repair and maintenance costs on the building, a detail Arter has agreed to in the most recent letter.
Additionally, Arter asked for the township’s cooperation with renovation to revamp and upgrade the interior or the facility.
Arter’s issues with the township stem from Medford’s unwillingness to begin an overhaul of the facilities, which include reconfiguring the inside of the building to accommodate new standards. The upgrades would include three new, distinctive areas as well, including a resource area for children, a “cyber café” and an adult reading room, according to a previous letter sent by Arter.
According to the letter, an addendum to the agreement from Medford places responsibility of the building on the county.
“I cannot, in good faith, recommend to the commission that it execute your amended agreement, which would end Medford’s shared service responsibility and place the total burden for paying for the Pineland’s Branch on county library taxpayers, most of whom do not have the luxury of having a branch in their own hometown. Simply stated, I will not recommend that the Library Association raise property taxes on residents of other towns to upgrade the library building that Medford owns,” Arter said in the letter.
“How is that right? Where’s the benefit to taxpayers? She thinks taxes are collected so politicians can spend it and tell everyone how great they are,” Buoni said. “The money should be spent exactly what it is meant for.”
According to Councilman James “Randy” Pace, the township owns the building and pays for the utilities of the facility, despite its status as part of the Burlington County Library System.
Libraries in the system are the financial responsibility of the county, he said.
“It’s like if someone rented a building from me, without having to pay rent and I paid for all of their utilities,” Pace said. “That just doesn’t happen, it doesn’t make sense.”
According to Pace, Arter has yet to explain where the surplus of the library taxes is applied.
“Until I get a detailed description of what they’re doing with the money I’m forced to believe what they tell us is a bald-faced lie. She’s upset because she got her hands caught in the cookie jar,” Pace said.
According to Pace and Buoni, the Bordentown Library, part of the BCLS, is owned, operated and paid for by the county. Additionally, the Westhampton facility was upgraded with the construction of a new amphitheater.
“I look at the people who get involved in these massive county projects. I wonder if it was necessary that the county needs another amphitheater,” Buoni said. “Is it really a function of a library? I wonder if it’s right. I don’t see a need.”
According to Pace, since the county has full control of the library, officials could upgrade as they see fit.
“I would expect my elected representatives to provide value not just in some of my tax dollars but all of my tax dollars. What I don’t think Mrs. Arter understands is that most taxpayers think the same way I do,” Buoni said.
In addition to an upgrade of the building, Arter is asking for full cooperation of the Medford Library Association, a non-profit no longer in service.
“I met with five people two weekends ago to talk to them about reconstituting and getting the Medford Library Association back on its feet,” Pace said, adding the association has $100,000 in assets accrued over time and untouched. “Over the course of time, the people who ran it got old and disinterested.”
In the same breath, Arter indicated Southampton is envious of Medford’s branch status, despite Medford’s rejection of the county’s benefits.
According to Arter, the Sally Strech Keen Library is paid for by the same county library tax as Medford.
“What Leah Arter doesn’t understand is the library in Southampton is smaller,” Pace said. “What she doesn’t say is that the organization has been funded by the municipality and has a private foundation sitting on $500,000.”
Pace believes the freeholders will close the Pinelands Branch, give status to the Southampton library and utilize their $500,000 as a “way to appease party bosses,” and leaving the financial burden of Medford on municipal taxes. Pace does not want to see the library close, but doesn’t plan to back down from the county on the issue.
“If you feel that the township’s total contribution to the library system is onerous and unreasonable, you can terminate the agreement that is currently in effect by forwarding written notice to the county,” Arter stated in the letter.
Arter indicates the township can take full financial responsibility of the facility, “or, for that matter, you could decide to have no library at all.”
“She’s the epitome with what is wrong with your government. She accuses Mr. Buoni and I of not understanding. What she is not understanding is that when you seek public office, you seek it to serve the people,” Pace said.
Arter could not be reached for comment.