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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – After a seemingly endless campaigning for a tax levy vote to fund the replacement of the Shrewsbury Library, the issue finally goes to the voters once again tomorrow, November 5th. As our readers will recall, the matter came up previously to the Shrewsbury voters for an $18M facility, and was rejected by a narrow margin. Following that, the designers came back with a revised plan which was smaller in size, but with a cost that had increased to $23.3M, which the town will have to vote to approve. In the event that the referendum passes, the state will be reimbursing 34% of the project, or $7.9M and the town of Shrewsbury will be responsible for the remaining 66%, or $15.2 Million. Proponents are hoping for private donations and fund-raising to supply $1.75M, and if those fund-raising efforts are successful, the town will require a total bond of $13.59M in order to complete the project.
Proponents and opponents of the project have been engaged in a somewhat bitter war of words of late, which sadly has created more than a few bad feelings through the community. My hope is that regardless of how the vote turns out, that these factions will come together as one, and work towards a better Shrewsbury in the future.
This has been an unusual issue, in that the pro and con sides are not necessarily as clear cut as one may think. We have seniors advocating in favor of the new tax levy, citing how important the library is as a center of the community…and we have parents of school children who are definitely lovers of the library, but feel that with our schools in financial crisis, now is not the time to spend millions on another capital expense. The one thing that is somewhat encouraging, is that every person I spoke to, including ever person I met on the “no” side, feels that the library is a wonderful asset to Shrewsbury. That made it less of a war on the subject itself, and more a mere disagreement on the best approach. Certainly, the propaganda on both sides has been strong, and incessant in advocating their position. The proponents cite that the cost of building a brand new library will be only 800k more than the estimate cost to renovate the existing building. They talk about the thousands of people that use the library each year, and it’s role not only as a library, but as a valuable community center enjoyed by many. The opponents feel that those figures themselves are somewhat in question, in that it is not, according to them, and either build new, or totally renovate matter. They make the point that if the town does not vote to approve a new library, that does not mean that there are any plans whatsoever for a $12 Million renovation either, and thus in their minds it is a matter of whether we want to spend 12-13M on the library at all, or just make whatever repairs are most needed, and do a bit each year as required.
In the interest of fairness, I reached out this week to representatives that I know and trust from both sides, and asked them to send me their own personal statement on the issue, so that I might present them to my loyal Shrewsbury Lantern readers.
From the Vote Yes campaign:
On Tuesday, November 5th, Shrewsbury voters will decide the future of the public library.
If the debt exclusion is met with voter approval, Shrewsbury will receive a $7.9M grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners in addition to $1.75M in private donations to offset the overall impact on taxpayers. The town’s share of the project, $13.6M, will be paid for using bonds and is within the 3% debt level approved by the Board of Selectmen. The tax impact will not be realized until 2018. The average taxpayer will see a $43 increase in their tax bill for the Library Project. This amount will decrease over time until the bond is paid off.
If the voters do not approve the current project, the library will still need many costly capital repairs and system upgrades to remain functional. After an extensive evaluation of the current building by the architects, it has been determined that it will cost $12.8M to replace major systems, bring the library up to code, and make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A repair only project is not eligible for the state grant money or the private fundraising dollars and would result in less usable space within the library. A repair only project would not meet the long-term needs of the community, such as increasing space for Children’s and Young Adult services and increasing the amount of parking spaces.
There is also uncertainty around how repairs would be funded if the vote fails. Possible scenarios include an third debt exclusion attempt to pay for the $12.8M in repairs or using funds from the general operating budget to make the capital repairs. These decisions would be made by the Board of Selectmen and the Town Manager. A vote in support of this Project is a vote to pay for major infrastructure improvements outside of the Annual Operating Budget and may protect funding for other town departments. A favorable vote gives the town a library that will serve the needs of the community well into the future and makes prudent use of tax payer dollars for a more complete solution to the problems faced by the current building.
From the No side
A prolonged recession with no end in sight is not the best time to ask taxpayers to raise their taxes in order to build a lavish luxury like the proposed library. In 2011, voters rejected spending $18.5 million to expand the library. After that defeat, the town manager said that the project would lose at the polls next time unless it were 15% smaller and cheaper. So the current proposal is 7% smaller and (at $23.3 million) 27% more expensive. The cost of each square foot of floor space for the project has risen from $446 in 2011 to $604 in 2013. The library will be expanded 50% in order to house just a 5% increase in the library’s collection. To obtain a state grant, the library had to be designed according to outdated state guidelines that have hardly changed since the 1990s and that still don’t even mention electronic books (which now comprise 1 in 4 books sold). Proponents fret about losing the state grant if taxpayers vote “no”, but in 2009 library officials voluntarily gave back a state grant — and were awarded a bigger one.
Proponents say that the alternative to their project is spending $12.8 million to repair and renovate the library. But in 2011, they told us that repairs would cost only $6.4 million – that’s a 100% increase in repair costs in only two years while inflation of construction costs has been only 2.2% per year. Moreover, in 2012 town meeting appropriated $250,000 to fix leaks in the children’s library and elsewhere – of which NONE was spent to fix leaks. The project will also demolish a perfectly good $760,000 credit union building. And yet they still expect taxpayers to spend an average of $1 million per year for twenty years (the cost of the principal plus interest) for this project. Meanwhile, town officials will have to fire enough firefighters, police and / or teachers to pay for the annual $150,000 increased cost of heating, cooling and cleaning a bigger library. Town officials also want taxpayers to replace Beal School and the police station, and to approve a permanent override for the schools. All this during an unending recession. Voters should vote their pocketbooks on November 5th and vote “No”.