HILLSIDE — It has been more than 14 months since the doors to Hillside Public Library were shuttered to the public due to damaging floods, and it does not seem to matter who you ask about it; no one seems willing to provide any sort of timeline for when the facility will reopen, or at what cost.
The public first learned that the library was in need of serious repairs when the director of the library disseminated a message via Facebook and email.
“Hillside Public Library remains closed after a flash flood on Aug. 23, 2013,” the message read. “The initial cleanup began on Aug. 29 and was completed on Sept. 4 by Insurance Restoration Specialists. However, the repairs needed to get the library open are extensive.
“This included removal of asbestos floor tiles that were exposed when the carpet was taken up,” the message continued. “That portion of the recovery was completed on Sept. 24 by First Phase Inc. Currently we are awaiting approval from the insurance company on bids submitted to replace the flooring materials. The soonest the library will reopen will be the middle of November.”
On Oct. 3, 2013, the library’s Facebook page declared work was progressing nicely, although the writer of the message was not identified.
“Library renovation update: Tile was ordered today,” said the Facebook message. “The library is getting beautiful ceramic tile from Texas. Look for us to reopen in November. We will keep you posted.
The library has now missed this “middle of November” estimated timetable by one year, and counting. A month later, in mid November of 2013, the library director, Dave Cubie, changed his message to the public via the library’s Facebook page.
“Unfortunately the library reconstruction has been modified,” reads a new message on the library’s Facebook page, this time attributed to Cubie. “At this time there is no set date for reopening. The township engineer is now handling the contracts and negotiations. We are asking the municipality to invest in the resources to fix the floors and engineer the building so that future floods which are due to occur will not cause us to shut down for this long of a duration if at all … Please contact your elected representatives and express your interest in the library reconstruction.”
Cubie is now the former director of the Hillside library, having left the position in early 2014. He is now the director of West Orange Public Library. When reached by phone, Cubie declined to answer any questions regarding Hillside.
According to Mayor Angela Garretson, the library is a work in progress, and the mayor could not stress enough the “progress” portion of her message.
The mayor, on Monday evening, was presented with the following statement and question from LocalSource via email.
“According to multiple sources, one of the messages you campaigned with included making sure the library opened quickly. In addition, you claimed in the course of the campaign, according to multiple sources, that the library being closed for so long was the fault of the previous mayor. At that time, the library had been closed for two to three months. It has now been 14 months, and many people — citizens and otherwise — are wondering why the library continues to remain closed, when it might open, and at what cost.
What do you say to concerned residents that have not had access to a local library for 14 months?”
The mayor responded with LocalSource over the telephone.
“We are not going to worry about multiple sources,” the mayor responded. “We are going to hear from the source. What are the facts? What are the determining variables that are going on with the library? Opening something quickly and not appropriately are two different things. It has now been closed under my leadership since January. This is something I inherited.”
Garretson went on to explain the many variables surrounding the flood and ongoing repairs of the Hillside library. According to the mayor, there was asbestos, mold, mildew, flooding from below, leaking from above, and a whole host of problems with which nobody was prepared to deal.
“Everything that could have gone wrong did,” Garretson said, noting that even the library server crashed and had to be replaced by the board of trustees. “You have a library board. You have a council. You have a mayor’s office. We are not the people who are responsible ultimately for the day to day progress. We are required to hire contractors through a competitive process. As an elected official, I’m supposed to get recommendations that we have vetted.
“When I was campaigning, I made a promise that I wanted to create a plan,” the mayor continued. “And a plan means you have to look at all the variables and make judgement calls. When something is not in the interest of an entire community, you don’t want to do a patch job. My main concern is that the safety of all the residents will be ensured for years to come.”
According to multiple sources, and details which Garretson confirmed, the flooding at the library damaged furniture and the rugs but did not damage books in the initial aftermath. But the cleanup revealed the water damaged much more than the naked eye could see.
Upon pulling up the carpet, asbestos was discovered underneath, and the entire room needed to be emptied in order to perform the repairs. The repairs were performed, but according to Sam McGhee, the president of the library board of trustees, “the company that did the work did not do the work properly.”
After some conversation with the company hired for the project, the work was performed a second time.
“They did the floor over again and it still wasn’t satisfactory,” said McGhee, “So a decision was made to re-tile the floor. We had hoped to be open by this time.”
When asked if he had any idea when the library would open again, the president of the trustees made it clear he had no idea.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said. “It’s a nightmare. I really can’t give an answer for when it’s going to be open. I think it’s because the administration got involved in it, unfortunately, and as a cost savings measure, they wanted us to just put down concrete and paint the floor.”
When asked to clarify “administration,” McGhee simply said he was referring to the current governing body, but noted not the current township council, and said he was not trying to single anyone out.
When the floor in the library was redone, it was left completely unlevel, according to both Garretson and McGhee. But the floor was put on hold as the trustees, township engineers and the “administration” worked to stop was has been deemed the larger problem: nobody wants this to happen again.
The flooding has been a chronic problem, as there is a county storm sewer line running very close or even underneath the library. According to some sources, this pipe is very old and cannot handle the overflow during very severe rainstorms. This is the main culprit of catastrophic flash flooding in the main library.
But there were other conditions, according to Garretson, that the township has been determined to solve. For one, the roof was leaking.
“The library has a new roof,” said Garretson. “We have cleared out the space. We have a plan for it. We were able to move eight or nine employees from the construction offices to protect their safety.”
The construction offices were on the same floor as the library and the asbestos and mold raised health concerns.
These actions and more, including working to improve the library’s book collection and computer processing capabilities, were undertaken and continue to progress, according to Garretson, while the situation with the unlevel floor is being worked out. The township continues to be unhappy with the work performed and is waiting to hear how to proceed from the engineer and the legal department.
“We’ve taken the opportunity to revamp the library, not just fix it,” the mayor said. “None of this was in the original plan. We are trying to fix the infrastructure that has been ignored for generations, and we plan to fix the library so it’s a functioning space.”
A meeting is scheduled for early December that will put all the major players in the same room, according to Garretson, and hopefully some of the questions about moving forward will be resolved, she said.
“We unfortunately have had contractors who did not fulfill their obligations and would likely be operational had they fulfilled their obligations. The matter of the unlevel floor is now a legal matter,” Garretson explained, noting the township attorney was looking into the matter and would hopefully provide recommendations in the near future.
But not only are there legal concerns regarding the unlevel floor, the additional concerns about the chronic problem of flooding and moisture still need to be resolved.
“Before the situation could be addressed, we had to bring people in to do a study on mitigating the moisture and mildew situation,” said the president of the board of trustees. “Then we returned to the floors. Since that time, it’s just been a nightmare.”
According to the Union County Communications Director, Sebastian D’Elia, the county has been in touch with Hillside officials, but the ball has always been in their court.
“There have been discussions in the past year between the county and Hillside regarding the storm sewer at the library, but nothing has moved forward. Nothing will move forward until Hillside works through internal issues with regards to the library.”
While Hillside has struggled with the problems plaguing the library, the board of trustees, of which Garretson is a member, has allowed some employees to continue working. LocalSource was able to confirm that during the 2013-14 school year several employees worked in the school district, paid for by the library. At least one person worked in the superintendent’s office.
In addition, the director of Elizabeth Public Library confirmed that two employees from Hillside Public Library worked, temporarily, within the Elizabeth Public Library system, and stated that Elizabeth was not responsible for paying them.
The school district also attempted to help in another way by offering the use of the high school library and some additional space as a temporary library for Hillside. But too many concerns regarding student safety made this an unacceptable option, according to sources in both the town and the school district.
In the meantime, the books and undamaged library furniture have been stored in several trailers currently parked near the library while the issues regarding chronic flooding and the leveling of the floors is worked out.
When pressed for a cost estimate for the repairs and overall work being performed at the library, the mayor did not have a conclusive answer due to too many variables, she said. However, at least $1.32 million has been appropriated between the 2013 and 2014 municipal budgets for “maintenance of free public library.”
In January, in an interview with LocalSource for an article titled “New Hillside mayor defends actions” Garretson mentioned the slow progress at the library, and even said the cost of the floor repairs.
“Many things that have come up seemed to be ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ been done, but were either not done or done wrong,” Garretson said in the January article, noting at the time the library project was stalled because asbestos removal was not done correctly.
“Apparently we paid $20,000 to have the job done but the company failed to look under the library book shelves so we had to bring in another company to get the job done right,” the mayor said in January.
Regardless of fault, duration and both unknown and unforeseen costs, two things have become abundantly clear regarding the closing of the Hillside library no matter who LocalSource spoke with or attempted to speak with: Answers have been hard to come by, and everyone would like the library to open as soon as possible.
“To have a library that was so heavily frequented by both school children and adults be closed for so long, and for them to no longer have access to it is a tragedy,” said McGhee. “This has gone on for far too long.”
McGhee called LocalSource Tuesday morning from the library to confirm no work has taken place recently.
“Nothing has happened in the last two weeks,” he said.
McGhee also stressed that the library employees still on staff have been working very hard in the meantime to bring the library up to date and help the public as much as they can. In fact, last spring, the library had a temporary home on the ground floor of the municipal building where residents could check out and request books.
And while some officials were very forthcoming, information was still very hard to come by.
When contacted regarding library funding, a representative from the New Jersey State Library told LocalSource that they have had a difficult time getting Garretson and the library board of trustees on the phone, but did say, “They may be busy people. Perhap we may have caught them at a busy time.”
Business Administrator Samson Steinmen declined to comment when reached by telephone on Friday, saying “I have a meeting about the library on Monday morning and then I’d have to confer with the township attorney.”
When asked if he would call LocalSource back on Monday afternoon following his meeting, the business administrator did not hesitate to say “yes.” LocalSource’s calls to Steinman on Monday were not answered.
Several Open Public Record Act requests were made to Hillside late last week regarding the costs and plans for the library and the staff. None of these were fulfilled by press time; however, townships have up to seven business days to respond to an OPRA request.
In addition to the building being closed, the library’s website has also been down for an extensive period of time, the library board of trustees phone number is not listed, and the meeting dates are not posted anywhere online that a simple search would reveal. Calling the library’s phone number results in endless ringing, and there appears to have been no discernible efforts to inform the public by any township or library officials since Facebook posts last April. And the Facebook page has only been visited by 78 people.
For more than 14 months, the library has not been the only public institution kept in the dark, as simply attempting to find out if there still is a library in Hillside can be a daunting task. And this, perhaps, has contributed to rumors about the library making their way through the township.
One commenter on the Hillside Township NJ Community Forum Facebook page may have put it best on Oct. 18, 2014, as part of a long thread regarding the library being closed.
“I’m asking for answers,” the comment reads. “As a resident, our kids deserve better. All I am saying is what I heard and we, the residents, the parents, and the teachers, are frustrated because our children should not have to go to outside communities.
“I have asked and I haven’t gotten answers,” the commenter continued. “We deserve them!”