While the long wait is over, libraries face a quick deadline to submit their applications for a share in the available funding. Detailed applications must be completed and submitted by April 6 in order to be considered for the first round funding.
TRENTON — After more than two years of waiting, New Jersey libraries can finally apply for a portion of $125 million voters authorized the state to borrow to help fund construction of new libraries and improvements to existing ones.
On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey State Library announced the launch of the first round of grant applications for funding from the Library Construction Bond Act.
Voters overwhelmingly approved borrowing the funds in November 2017 but libraries were forced to endure an excruciatingly long wait for the state to release criteria and regulations spelling out how to apply for funding.
“Libraries are a cornerstone of our communities and serve as trusted sources for vital information and resources,” Murphy said in a statement. “With this funding, libraries across our state will be able to fund critical projects to improve their facilities and ensure a productive and pleasant experience for patrons young and old.”
“This program provides a wonderful opportunity to improve library facilities, making them safer, more efficient and technologically modern,” added New Jersey State Librarian Mary Chute.
While the long wait is over, libraries face a quick deadline to submit their applications. Detailed applications must be completed and submitted by April 6 in order to be considered for the first- round funding.
Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, said that may be a small window but that libraries were told to expect a short timeline.
“We do know that people have anticipated this and worked diligently to prepare,” Tumulty said. “Many libraries have been working to get their matching funds lined up.”
Among the Burlington County library projects that are expected to apply for state funding is in Medford, where local officials have been planning to construct a new library and municipal complex on land purchased by the township on Union Street. The new library would replace the over 40-year-old Pinelands branch on Allen Street.
Medford has already awarded an $8.1 million contract to Ogren Construction to begin construction on the two-story, 23,000-square-foot library and municipal complex. The library space is expected to amount to between $4 and $5 million of that cost, which means the township could be eligible for between $2 million to $2.5 million in state grant funding.
Completed projects are not believed to be eligible for the grant funding, but township officials said they believe that since the project will not be completed before the application deadline that it should still qualify.
Site work on the property could begin soon, but construction on the structure is unlikely to start before April, Medford Manager Kathy Berger said Monday.
“We’re under the impression that as long as we haven’t started, we’re OK,” Berger said, adding that the municipality has had no official contact with the State Library about the issue.
She said the township plans to submit an application for the library grant funding but that it is prepared to move forward regardless of whether it’s awarded funding or not. “We’re building regardless,” Berger said.
Competition for the grant funding is expected to be fierce. Tumulty said many libraries have waited multiple years for the funding to become available.
A total of 159 libraries responded to a survey on facility needs. More than 86% indicated they were planning for expansion or renovations within 2 years, according to the association.
“We’ve had libraries waiting to go forward almost from the day (the referendum) was passed by voters,” Tumulty said.
A total of $87.5 million of the $125 million is being made available during this initial application and awards have been capped at $500 per square foot of new construction and $350 per square foot of renovations and repairs or $12.5 million total.
Grants will be awarded on a competitive basis and provide up to 50% of a project’s cost. The remainder must be funded through a local match or through private fundraising.
New construction and renovations are eligible for state funding and the rules specify that projects should be connected in some way to either improving access to a library for people with disabilities or special needs, improving safety, optimizing technology and access to the internet and providing public meeting spaces and providing services, including education, job training, career assistance, college preparation and civic services.
In addition to the Medford library project, Burlington County officials have also indicated an interest in renovating the county system’s main branch library in Westampton so that it has more public meeting spaces and rooms for meetings, presentations and library programs. The county spent more than $7 million on a major expansion of the main branch, which included the addition of a 250-seat auditorium, cafe, larger information desk, offices, new book checkout area, children’s story room and community meeting space. It opened in 2011.
Officials at the county’s Cinnaminson branch library are also believed to be in the early stages of researching potential renovations and building improvements.
Tumulty said the association supports dividing the funding distribution into two rounds so that libraries that are unable to complete applications during the initial window can apply during the second round, along with those that may be passed over this year.
“There will definitely be a lot of competition. Just getting this through the Legislature was a long process,” she said. “We anticipate this will be a very popular. It may warrant a conversation about possibly a permanent (construction) fund.”
Applications for funding will be evaluated by a review committee formed by the state librarian, who will then forward a list of potential approvals to the president of Thomas Edison State University, which oversees State Library, to consider and approve.
The New Jersey Legislature will also have final say on the projects since legislation appropriating the money will need to be approved by both chambers and signed by the governor.