An offer to help fund the Hellertown Area Library for two years that was recently made by Lower Saucon Township was called into question by a number of Hellertown Borough Council members Monday, with council ultimately agreeing to reject it and release a community letter explaining why.
“This is nothing but a political stunt,” councilman Earl Hill said of the letter, in which township officials offered to help fund the Hellertown Area Library under an agreement that–if approved–would grant them funding-based, proportional control of the institution. The offer was made in a Sept. 21 letter to borough officials, in which township manager Mark Hudson said the township would provide library funding in the amount of $125,000 a year for two years beginning Jan. 1, 2024 if certain conditions were met. The letter also addressed the borough-owned compost center and the borough swimming pool, both of which were previously open to township residents under special facility agreements that were severed in the wake of the dispute involving the library.
One of the conditions outlined in the letter called for HAL “to obtain Office of Commonwealth Library approval to provide Access PA library cards and privileges, effective Jan. 1, 2024, for all Lower Saucon Township residents.”
Hellertown councilman Andrew Hughes noted that HAL’s deadline to include Lower Saucon Township in its funding request for 2024 was Oct. 1; a deadline that had already passed without such a request being made.
“This proposal wasn’t as time sensitive as it should have been,” Hughes commented.
He and several other council members pointed out that even if they thought the offer was a good one, council isn’t authorized to enter into such an agreement on the library’s behalf.
“We can’t accept the offer because we don’t control the library, and Lower Saucon Township didn’t make the offer to the library,” said councilman Matt Marcincin, who is council’s liaison to the HAL board of trustees.
The library, an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, has been the at the center of an ongoing feud involving Lower Saucon and Hellertown borough officials.
It was nearly two years ago that Lower Saucon Township Council voted against a proposed five-year agreement with HAL, which had been serving Lower Saucon residents for approximately eight years. When council made the decision to withdraw from the agreement, it offered the library a one-time donation of $50,000, which was later rejected. However, HAL continued to serve all township residents until Jan. 1, and since then has sold library cards to Lower Saucon residents who want them. The township currently reimburses residents up to $40 if they purchase a card.
Lower Saucon Township later made a $50,000 donation to the Southern Lehigh Public Library, which was accepted in mid-2022, but negotiations involving the SLPL board and township officials have so far not produced an agreement that would make the Center Valley library a “home library” for township residents.
Without a home library, a card purchased at another public library has limited value. Pennsylvania’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries requires municipalities to fund a home library in order for their residents to participate in its AccessPA program; a statewide network of public libraries that is off limits to Pennsylvanians who live in communities that lack home libraries.
Since the township’s relationship with HAL ended, the majority of Lower Saucon residents who have spoken about the issue at public meetings have said they continue to support the Hellertown library and want township council to negotiate a new agreement with HAL.
The lack of progress on the library issue has remained a regular subject of discussion at Lower Saucon Township Council meetings, and whether council members support a return to HAL services has become a question potential voters may be asking as they consider the candidates who are running for three open seats on township council.
The fact that the Sept. 21 offer was received in the midst of a local election cycle was brought up by several Hellertown council members Monday night, all of whom said they would rather wait and potentially work with a new township council majority in January than accept the current offer on the table, which borough attorney Jeffrey Stewart described as “take it or leave it.”
“All of this could go away come Jan. 1, but the next 45 days are going to be very pivotal in doing that,” said borough council president Tom Rieger. “There could be a series of meetings, there could be a series of negotiations and things could be probably return to normal very quick if we had like-minded (individuals on Lower Saucon Township Council).”
Rieger also questioned the offer, which he said would require the borough to cede control of the library and the compost center to another municipality, with no guarantee of continued access.
“We don’t have the trust to give up that total control to someone else,” he said.
During the public comment portion of the discussion, Pastor Phil Spohn asked if council saw any opportunity to extend an olive branch to Lower Saucon Township officials in light of the offer.
“We’re open for negotiation, not a scolding or a hostile takeover,” Rieger told Spohn, a Lower Saucon resident who has acted as a mediator in the past. “This is not a business. It is a community.”
Mayor David Heintzelman told Spohn that borough council has been open with their counterparts at the township, and they continue to listen.
“We have tried,” agreed councilwoman Liz Thompson, who earlier in the meeting said the offer from the township “seems to be a…purely political maneuver.”
Hughes said Lower Saucon Township received $90,000 in library services in 2022 that were never paid for by the township.
“Maybe they should pay their bill,” he quipped.
“We are not making grandiose offers to make things look flashy, so that they people who aren’t reading between the lines think we’re coming out on top,” Thompson added.
Several other residents also spoke about the library during the council discussion regarding Lower Saucon Township’s offer, which no one from the public told borough council it should accept.
“I think the hidden issue here is the Lower Saucon elections,” said Hellertown resident Ken Blose. “There’s a lot riding on the elections…and the thing not being talked about here tonight is the landfill. And people don’t get it.”
“The township is spending an exorbitant amount of money now on things that are window dressing,” Blose continued. “Steel City just got all new roads. There’s a baseball field being built–refurbished–down here for a lot of million dollars. … The hidden agenda here is the election.”
Pat Blose, who is a member of the HAL board of trustees, said she believes some township residents are confused or have been misled by recent news stories about the Lower Saucon offer.
Blose told council that as a board member, she was fielding phone calls from residents who exclaimed “wow, isn’t Lower Saucon wonderful?” over the news.
“They’re not paying attention,” she said.
Borough resident Jayne Shinko, after expressing concern about the library’s finances, advised council to consider joining with another local library system to ensure the future of the HAL.
“You do have a fiduciary responsibility to Hellertown residents,” she said. “We don’t want to be without a home library. We want you to get involved–maybe more directly involved–at this point.”
The next regular borough council meeting will be held Monday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m.
Lower Saucon Township Council will next meet on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 6:30 p.m.
A copy of the Sept. 21 Lower Saucon Township offer letter is included in the Oct. 1 Saucon Shenanigans blog post, “About That Offer,” by blogger Andrea Wittchen.
Monday’s borough council meeting may be viewed in the recording posted on Facebook, below.