At a special meeting Tuesday, after a number of residents spoke out against it, Lower Saucon Township Council voted to send a structured proposal for full library services to the Southern Lehigh Public Library board of directors.
The proposal is for a 10-year library services agreement with SLPL and calls for the township to use $250,000 in federal COVID relief funds for an up-front payment and thereafter to pay $75,000 per year for full use of the library’s resources.
Under the proposed agreement, Lower Saucon Township would have representation on the SLPL board proportionate to the amount of funding it provides and residents would be able to access materials from other libraries via a state program called AccessPA that is available to municipalities that fund a “home library.”
Under the terms of the proposal, there is a penalty of five years’ worth of payments if the agreement is terminated early by either the township or the library.
Council president Jason Banonis said the proposal represents the township’s “best and final offer” to Southern Lehigh Public Library, which in February forwarded council a proposal for a temporary agreement without board representation, and without full access to library materials and programs or the AccessPA program. Under that proposal, the township would have paid SLPL $3,750 a month, with a total annual payment not to exceed 15 percent of the library’s total annual budget.
Council requested a response from the SLPL board to its proposal no later than May 4, and if the agreement is accepted Banonis said he would like township residents to have full access to the Southern Lehigh Public Library and AccessPA effective June 1, 2023. The new contract would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2024.
The proposed agreement was approved by a vote of 4-1, with councilwoman Priscilla deLeon dissenting, and came after nearly two hours of resident feedback on it.
Most of the residents who addressed council advocated strongly for a new agreement with the Hellertown Area Library, which included Lower Saucon Township in its service area until the beginning of this year. The HAL board petitioned the state’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries to remove the township after a prior agreement expired in early 2022, shortly after LST council voted to offer HAL a $50,000 donation instead of adopting a new 5-year agreement that would have cost the township roughly $100,000 a year.
The township is currently suing the OCL for what it alleges was its wrongful removal from the HAL’s service area in a case that is reportedly before a federal judge.
Councilman Tom Carocci said Southern Lehigh Public Library is superior to the Hellertown Area Library, and Banonis called it “more substantial, robust” and in possession of “a vision for the future.”
Council members claimed SLPL will provide township residents with better services for less money than the township was paying to be part of the Hellertown Area Library.
Some residents took issue with that assertion, however. They cited a $50,000 donation the township made to SLPL last year and more than $100,000 in legal fees the township has accrued due to the litigation involving Hellertown Area Library as examples of township spending that wasn’t being factored into the calculation.
Currently, Lower Saucon residents can purchase library cards from the Hellertown Area Library for which they are eligible to receive a reimbursement of up to $40 from the township, however the cards do not come with the AccessPA sticker many library users value. Thus, means the cards cannot be used at other institutions. Several times during the meeting Carocci claimed that HAL has the ability to put the stickers on the cards it sells to residents from outside its service area, but that claim was challenged by residents such as Victoria Opthof-Cordaro, who read library code verbiage she said proves that isn’t the case. According to the Statewide Library Card Program Frequently Asked Questions page on StateLibray.PA.gov, “Paying a fee for a library card does not make someone eligible to participate in the Statewide Library Card Program. People may only participate in the program if they live in a municipality that supports a state-aided public library. Purchased library cards should not have Access PA logos on them.”
SLPL was serving Lower Saucon residents without an agreement until Feb. 28, shortly after its board voted 3-2 to send their limited proposal to township council. Both library board members and SLPL staff have acknowledged pressure from some funding partners within the library’s current service area to accept an agreement with Lower Saucon Township and the additional funding it would provide. However, concerns have also been raised about possibly needing to expand the library and add staff, and what that would cost.
Among the arguments Lower Saucon residents who spoke in favor of HAL made were its central location within the Saucon Valley School District as well as its proximity to schools.
Township resident Lynn Hill said she lives about two miles from the Hellertown library but is 7 or 8 miles from SLPL, and noted that people who live in the northeast corner of Lower Saucon could be 12 miles or 25 minutes away from it.
Hill said council is trying to tear Hellertown-Lower Saucon community apart, and told them “we can repair (the relationship) after you’re not in office anymore…”
Robert Hill, noting the acrimony between the current council and Hellertown Area Library, questioned whether Southern Lehigh library officials would even want to take Lower Saucon on.
“I don’t blame them,” he said. Citing the “somewhat draconian penalties” in the proposed agreement, he asked why anyone would want to touch it “with a 10-foot pole?”
“Well see what happens if they say ‘no,'” Banonis responded.
Milly Dignetti said that over the course of numerous meetings during which residents of the township have addressed council regarding library services, no one has gotten up and told them they want the township to be part of the Southern Lehigh Public Library.
“HAL was our happy place as we kind of came out of Covid,” she said. “When we walk into the library, (children’s librarian) Miss Andrea (Milliren) knows my son’s name. She knows the books he likes. She knows how he’s doing in reading. He wants to go to the library that’s right across the street from where he plays T-ball. That’s community.”
“You are not being good stewards of our tax dollars,” Jessica King told council, who she called “prideful” and “arrogant.” King, who is vice president of the Friends of the Hellertown Area Library, said the township’s offer to HAL in early 2022 “was less” and that “(HAL) can’t do more with less.”
“If you want more, please consider something that’s fair market value for the things and services that you’re looking for,” she said.
Lower Saucon resident Phil Spohn, who is the pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Hellertown, previously led a mediation session attended by borough, township and Hellertown library officials nearly a year ago. At Tuesday’s meeting, he asked township council to delay voting on the Southern Lehigh library proposal and attempt a reconciliation once more.
“I came here 27 years ago and there was fracture, and we’ve made so much progress,” he said. “Can we try again?”
The next Southern Lehigh Public Library board meeting will be held Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the library, which is located at 3200 Preston Lane, Center Valley.
The next Lower Saucon Township Council meeting is scheduled to be held Wednesday, April 19 at 6:30 p.m. at Lower Saucon Town Hall, 3700 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bethlehem.