Concerns about a 5-year Hellertown Area Library funding agreement were aired by Lower Saucon Township Council members at their meeting Wednesday, with council ultimately voting 4-1 to donate $50,000 to the library less a one-month installment payment made Jan. 1 instead of approving the agreement worth nearly $500,000, while opening up the possibility of a lawsuit against the library if access is denied to residents as a result of Wednesday’s decision.
The vote to reduce township funding for the library and forgo signing an agreement came after 20 or more residents spoke in favor of Lower Saucon’s continued financial support for the Hellertown library at the level requested by the library’s board of trustees.
Township council president Jason Banonis read a letter he said council had received from two residents who supported leaving the Hellertown Area Library, but it was also acknowledged that letters of support for the HAL had been sent to council by residents.
How many letters were received on either side of the issue wasn’t disclosed during the three-hour discussion, which began with a roughly 30-minute statement by Banonis, who characterized the actions by library leadership over the past eight months as “deliberate” and part of an effort to exclude the township from discussions about the agreement.
Banonis was interrupted by members of the audience more than once during his remarks, with some questioning his assertion that township residents could continue to use the Hellertown Area Library without Lower Saucon having an agreement in place and another person complaining about the length of his commentary, which she said was delaying her from getting an 18-month-old home.
“History and context are important here,” Banonis said, and later, he told meeting attendees that “social media and local media are full of misinformation.”
Banonis claimed that the five-year library agreement was “made in secret” and that a “lack of transparency and accountability” by those involved in drafting it had resulted in legitimate concerns being raised about the township’s continued funding of the library.
“This was a crisis borne of the library in Hellertown, designed to benefit the library in Hellertown,” he said.
His criticism extended to the elected leaders of Hellertown borough, who he claimed had failed to seek township input about the agreement and view the township as a piggy bank.
“The library and Hellertown borough apparently feel Lower Saucon Township is unimportant except for its money,” Banonis claimed. “Hellertown only wants to be aligned with Lower Saucon when it suits them.”
He also criticized the borough for not publishing two-month-old meeting minutes containing information about the library agreement and “apparently tens of thousands of dollars of borough taxpayer money” that was “committed to be spent” on their website.
Part of his criticism directed toward the borough and borough officials is quoted below:
Has anyone here asked the elected officials of Hellertown why they’ve acted this way toward Lower Saucon or to the detriment of Lower Saucon’s residents or to the township’s relationship to the library–they’re a supposed partner in this library–or why do they so one thing and do something else? Have you gone to a Hellertown borough council meeting like you show up here? Have you called or emailed anyone from the borough, the mayor or the library board like you’ve contacted us? Has anyone asked the mayor or the borough council why they would not respond to our manager or contact any of us on council or come to one of our council meetings to discuss this, or meet with us like friends, or why they came to our meetings and say one thing and do the opposite, to our detriment, or why they apparently vote on matters of financial importance and don’t even post the minutes? I suspect not. So, I’d like answers to that, and I don’t think we’re going to get those answers.
Banonis said data about library usage by township residents that Hellertown Area Library officials provided council was insufficient, adding, “it remains very questionable to me…what information has not been forthcoming.”
According to an infographic prepared and distributed by the Friends of the Hellertown Area Library, there are currently 3,328 Lower Saucon residents who hold HAL library cards, including 2,513 adults and 815 minors. With a population of just over 11,000, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, that means roughly 30 percent of Lower Saucon residents have Hellertown library cards.
In contrast, there are approximately 6,100 residents of Hellertown borough according to the latest census figures, of whom 2,659 have HAL library cards (1,878 adults and 781 minors), according to the data. That population share is equivalent to about 43 percent.
Although some of the arguments and data presented at Wednesday’s meeting were likely new to many in attendance, the relationship between the township and the library is not.
Township resident, founding supporter and former library trustee Jane Hecker told council that from its inception, volunteers wanted the library to welcome patrons from beyond the borough’s limits, which she said was why it was named the Hellertown Area Library as opposed to the “Hellertown Library.”
“One of the things we thought the library would do is unify the community,” Hecker said. “That’s not happening, and that’s a shame. And shame on us if this destruction continues.”
Lower Saucon Township resident Laura Ray echoed those concerns in comments she made before council.
“Saucon Valley–which is Hellertown, Lower Saucon–that is our community,” she said. “Things you are doing seem to be trying to rip apart what took many, many years to bring together.”
“Taking away our money would be crippling to their budget,” she said of the library.
The Hellertown Area Library traces its roots back to the fall of 1989, when a group of local bibliophiles began a “good books collection,” according to a history of the library at HellertownLibrary.org. The following summer, the first library branch opened at 528 Main Street in Hellertown, in a building that today houses a plumbing business.
Approximately three years later, the Hellertown Area Library building that is in use today opened at 409 Constitution Avenue. Another two decades would pass, however, until Lower Saucon Township left the Bethlehem Area Public Library system to become part of Hellertown’s library; a decision that was not without acrimony at the time, with some residents valuing the more extensive resources of the BAPL and the township’s 40-plus-year relationship with BAPL over the convenience others saw in belonging to the HAL.
The majority of residents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting praised the central location of the Hellertown Area Library within the Saucon Valley School District, as well as its programs and staff. A number of parents and a few kids also sang the praises of the HAL children’s librarian, Andrea “Miss Andrea” Milliren, who council was told by one resident has done a great job of thinking “outside the box” in order to continue engaging kids during the coronavirus pandemic that has upended learning for nearly two years now.
The library’s proximity to the local public schools has been a selling point for it in the past, but parents of homeschooled children have also implored Lower Saucon Council to remain part of the Hellertown library system, and continued to do so on Wednesday.
One parent of homeschoolers who has been particularly outspoken in her support for the Hellertown Area Library–even launching a petition to focus attention on the issue–said the manner in which the library’s funding has been discussed has set a bad example for families in the community who are trying to raise “kind, compassionate children.”
“The library community should be owed an apology for (you) putting us through this,” Briana Rich told council.
“We are battling for 1.4 percent of Lower Saucon Township’s budget,” she said, referencing the library’s annual funding request of $105,227 from the township in comparison with Lower Saucon’s general fund budget of approximately $7.5 million.
Rich also pointed to a statement made in support of the Hellertown library made by councilman Tom Carocci in an Oct. 30, 2021 Q&A with the then-candidates for Lower Saucon Township Council published by Saucon Source, calling it “odd” in light of his subsequent opposition to the proposed library agreement.
Rich said that as someone who has been a registered Republican her entire adult life, she would have “voted Democrat for the first time” in November had she known how the three Republicans who were elected or re-elected to township council–Banonis, Carocci and council vice president Jennifer Zavacky–would soon side on the issue of support for the proposed library agreement.
Along with Republican Sandra Yerger, all three voted Wednesday on a motion made by Zavacky to make a one-time donation to the library instead of approving the agreement.
Zavacky called the per capita approach to funding the library on which the proposed agreement was based “dated,” and pointed to the fact that only 30 percent of Lower Saucon residents have Hellertown library cards as evidence that the agreement was not in the best interests of the township.
Councilwoman Priscilla deLeon, a Democrat, disagreed, and voted against the donation.
“I have to vote no, because, I’m sorry, it should be $107,000,” she said, referring to her support for the annual amount the library requested from the township in the agreement.
Though they did not rule out the idea of signing an agreement at some point in the future, a vote taken after most of the library’s supporters had left the meeting made it clear that the same council majority is already looking beyond the Saucon Valley for library services, and specifically to the Southern Lehigh Public Library in Center Valley.
Council approved a motion authorizing township manager Leslie Huhn to cut a check for $50,000 to the Southern Lehigh library as part of an effort to give township residents access to both libraries.
“We’re expanding,” Carocci said, and the donation is a way of letting Southern Lehigh library officials know that “we are interested in possibly partnering with them.”
Zavacky said “diversification” is pragmatic, because Southern Lehigh is a larger library and there is a trend toward regionalizing library services in places like Lehigh County.
“I’m afraid that in 10-plus years these small libraries won’t survive,” she said.
The motion to approve a $50,000 donation for the Southern Lehigh Public Library “has nothing to do with any additional funding to the Hellertown library, which is still a possibility,” Banonis said.
In a separate motion that drew scorn from some of the attendees who remained at the meeting, council voted 4-1 to authorize its solicitor to initiate legal action against the Hellertown Area Library should access be denied to township residents on the basis of Wednesday’s decision to make a lump sum donation to the library, which council members contended is sufficient to guarantee continued, complete access for residents.
“I think it’s a proactive rather than a reactive thing to do,” said Banonis in making the motion, which an attorney and former council candidate argued from the meeting room floor should not have been voted upon without an opportunity for public comment.
Solicitor Linc Treadwell maintained that the motion was made as part of the council discussion on library services that was on the meeting agenda, for which a special public comment period had already been held. Lower Saucon Township Council adopted a new set of meeting rules earlier this month, which eliminated regular public comment periods following each agenda item, but made an exception to that rule for Wednesday’s meeting.
“Have a public comment period after you make a new motion that wasn’t on your agenda,” said Victoria Opthof-Cordaro, who argued that a new motion involving the potential for taxpayer dollars to be spent, that was voted upon without an opportunity for public comment, constituted a violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act.
Treadwell said it did not.
“The agenda item is library services. That relates to library services,” he said. “Library services includes the potential to keep the doors open if they are closed incorrectly.”
Fallout from comments made by Lower Saucon council members was registered Thursday in the form of a letter from Hellertown Borough Council president Tom Rieger that expressed disappointment in the characterization of the history of the library agreement negotiations as well as the borough’s involvement in them.
“Last night’s Lower Saucon Township Council meeting was a very sad event for not only the residents of Hellertown but also the greater community,” said Rieger in the letter, which was carbon copied to community members, the media, borough council members, borough staff, the Hellertown Area Library and Mayor David Heintzelman. “This is a very unfortunate situation that will have serious and long-lasting ramifications on the once close relationship between Hellertown Borough and Lower Saucon Township.”
“Hellertown Borough Council has and will always commit to providing community focused services and will work together with the Hellertown Area Library and its leadership to ensure the immediate future is secure for the residents of Hellertown and the children of our greater community,” the letter from Rieger said. “Understanding Lower Saucon Township Council’s unprecedented vote for possible litigation against the Hellertown Area Library and/or the Borough Hellertown is serious and based on that we will issue no further comment until Hellertown Borough Council and the Hellertown Area Library can come together, review our options and work together to present a plan to ensure a brighter and secure future for the Hellertown Area Library.”
Friends of the Hellertown Area Library president Larry O’Donnell also voiced disappointment in the outcome of the Lower Saucon Township Council meeting in a letter shared Thursday, but vowed to continue fighting to secure funding for the HAL.
“We are extremely disappointed by the council’s motions to reduce HAL funding and allocate funds elsewhere but remain hopeful that a long-term solution can still be reached by all parties,” O’Donnell wrote. “At this time we are asking everyone to stay involved and not become discouraged. While the board, lawyers and elected officials continue negotiations, we need you to keep the faith and keep showing up. Continue the dialogue with your council members, library staff and other related community partners. Learn as much as you can about the situation and spread the word.”
The meeting Wednesday was not livestreamed online by township officials, however a local blogger shared a livestream of the first three hours of it on her blog’s Facebook page.
The video recording of the meeting by Andrea Wittchen–who regularly covers Lower Saucon Township Council for her Saucon Shenanigans blog–generated more than 200 comments by hundreds of viewers who watched the library discussion unfold in real-time.
The library agreement that was extended for a month remains in effect through Jan. 31.