All 20 staffers at Camden's two remaining public libraries will be laid off effective Feb. 11, officials said Wednesday, although the county plans to take over one of the branches and allow employees to reapply for their jobs.
The layoffs, prompted by budget cuts, mean that the main branch on Federal Street in downtown Camden will close and that the city will cease providing library services for the first time in 105 years.
The Ferry Avenue branch, which Camden County built for the city five years ago, will be taken over by the Camden County Library System, according to a statement from the county.
To replace the main branch downtown, the county is in talks with Rutgers University-Camden about carving out a space in the university's nearby Robeson Library, a school spokesman said. The county library system would staff that facility.
The county plans to fund its operations in the city with a dedicated tax assessed to city property owners.
A third library in South Camden was closed earlier this year because of budget cuts.
Mayor Dana L. Redd, facing a fiscal crisis that also means deep layoffs for the Fire and Police Departments, cut city funding to the libraries this fiscal year from $923,000 to $390,000.
Employees, handed layoff notices Wednesday, said they were saddened and surprised. Even if the county takes over the city system - a move that must be approved by City Council - employees were not sure if they would be rehired.
"Suppose the county doesn't want us?" asked Jewell Johnson, 61, in her 20th year as a librarian.
Johnson and other employees said the county had long coveted the city-owned property where the historic downtown branch sits. It is sandwiched between two buildings - the county jail and courthouse - that have had crowding issues.
Frank Fulbrook, a library board member and civic gadfly, went a step further and alleged that Redd, a former county employee, had orchestrated the library's budget cuts to pave the way for the county to take the land. While other city departments faced 24 percent budget cuts this year, he said, the library system lost more than half of its funding.
In 2000, Camden County freeholders offered to close the dilapidated Federal Street branch and build two new libraries elsewhere in the city, according to news reports.
"The city engineered a crisis to do what they wanted to do for at least 10 years," Fulbrook said.
Redd spokesman Robert Corrales wrote in an e-mail that the allegation was "not true."
"By joining the county library system, additional services will be provided in a more cost-effective way to Camden City residents," Corrales wrote.
A county spokeswoman, Joyce Gabriel, said: "The county isn't looking to buy anything right now."
Officials said that the county had vowed to expand the city's current library services by adding evening and Saturday hours and literacy programs.
It is still unclear how much space Rutgers will dedicate to a community library, and whether the university will be comfortable with homeless people who now use the downtown branch to sleep and escape the elements.
"We're pretty optimistic we're going to find a good resolution, a good way to make it work," Rutgers-Camden spokesman Mike Sepanic said.
Regarding jobs, the county said in a statement that "every consideration will be given" to current library employees who want to apply for jobs within the county system.
But on Wednesday, employees were skeptical.
"They're telling the people of Camden that they don't care" about them, said Ethel Randall, 53, a Camden resident and 20-year librarian.
It is not known when City Council will vote on the county takeover. Council President Frank Moran did not return calls for comment.