The last time Karen Jeffries-Wells stopped by the Orange Public Library, she saw a scene similar to a hostage situation. Library staff were in tears and someone — referred to in this story as the “whistleblower” — nervously slipped her a note alleging months of willful neglect by city officials and thousands in unpaid bills.
“This is the most dedicated staff,” said Jeffries-Wells, chair of the city’s historic preservation commission. “Anyone else would have quit.”
Things began to go wrong during the pandemic when library staff was put on a paid leave from March to October last year. It was understood that monthly bills would be brought to City Hall by a member of the library board.
Once restrictions were lifted, the library director, Sarah Wiggins, never returned from a medical leave taken in February, so the staff — now comprised of three librarians — had to oversee the daily operations. In addition, phone service had been cut off because the bill had not been paid. The staff eventually paid the $500 bill with personal money, for which they still haven’t been reimbursed.
Around February of this year, however, concerns grew over other bills. Subscriptions for DVDs and E-books were suddenly cut off. Another bill had fallen into the hands of a collection agency. And a long-standing relationship with a neighboring library was severed due to unpaid overdue fees.
“It’s a reciprocal service and it comes with reciprocal responsibilities,” said David Cubie, director at West Orange Public Library. “I know of another library that won’t loan out books to Orange residents because the city won’t pay their fines.”
The whistleblower decided to review the bills before they were forwarded to City Hall. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said the whistleblower, who found bills totaling tens of thousands of dollars, including an unpaid bill from PSEG for $35,000.
Even before the pandemic, the library, a Neoclassical landmark built in 1901, was in need of repairs. The copy machine is 20 years old and the air conditioner hasn’t worked since 2013. The website works, but it hasn’t been updated in two years. All that is neither here nor there, because the library hasn’t bought any new books or DVDs in two years. The city hasn’t given them money for new materials.
Rumors began to circulate that the board of trustees is threatening to furlough the staff in order to fund these repairs. Talk of furloughs, though, is particularly sensitive, because last year, the state offered a grant, the Library Bond Act, which can go toward repairs. David McKnight, a member of the library board, told Jersey Digs the city did, in fact, apply for the grant.
“There were a lot of things that went on that needed to be changed,” McKnight said. “We had to stop the mismanagement and put a capital plan in place. There were also issues dealing with employees. We’re making the changes.”
Regarding the unpaid bills, McKnight said the library has been going through a transition period without a director and with a newly hired finance chief at City Hall. “There might have been bills that got overlooked,” McKnight said. “But to say that we don’t have money to pay bills, no, that’s not what the issue was.”
Meanwhile, 69 city officials padded their salaries with $10,000 or more in FEMA funds. The top earner of federal funds was Kathrina Nease, the water superintendent, who earned $156,000 in pandemic relief funds on top of her six-figure salary, followed by the mayor’s cousin and Director of Public Works Raymond Wingfield’s $90,000, and Business Administrator Christopher Hartwyk’s $74,000. Since publication of this piece, Hartwyk has reached out to us to contest these earnings.
Even if city officials can make a legal argument for earning five and six figures in federal money, the real question is whether it is appropriate, especially when other services are failing so miserably to meet the needs of the community.
Most concerning, perhaps, is whether the library’s two funding streams — an endowment from the Watson family of IBM fame, as well as funds from the Office of Emergency Management — have mysteriously dried up, or if they have simply been overlooked as McKnight has insisted.
“God knows what they did with the money,” the whistleblower said, “but they didn’t use it to pay the bill.”