by John Ludwig
Woodstock is a tough place in which to get a large public works project done. We Woodstockers have our opinions, and we take every opportunity available for our views to be heard. We all remember how long it took to agree on a site for the new highway garage. After years of debate, the chosen site ended up being right where the highway garage already was.
The open, deliberative process is how we get things done. Unfortunately, our Woodstock Library Board of Trustees is remiss in creating an open, deliberative process for developing the publicly owned land under their stewardship. That pesky public has opinions they just don’t agree with. In 2007, the public didn’t agree that the library budget should be doubled to over $1 million dollars, and an additional $5.7 million tacked on over time to build an entirely new structure. Most people, myself included, learned of this plan two weeks before the budget vote, and we voted it down 1062 to 216. The Library Board had been working on this plan for quite some time, and they insisted that it was all done in meetings open to the public. How could it happen that a major public works project was shepherded through the planning and design process, and then only 216 people voted for it out of thousands eligible? What lessons should the Library Board have taken away from that failure?
The current uproar over the plan to build a $1.6 million annex on the laundromat site was predictable to anyone involved in the 2007 experience. The annex idea was hatched at the January 2012 Library Board meeting, and it picked up steam at their February, March and May 2012 meetings, where it was announced that a resident had offered to donate $500,000 if the new building were named after her. No members of the public were present at any of these meetings. This information is found in the meeting minutes on the library’s website ulsterpub.staging.wpengine.org. They hadn’t yet acquired the laundromat property at that point.
The laundromat site was purchased for $71,000 in June 2012. Requests for Proposal for an annex building were sent to architects within a 45 mile radius of Woodstock in October 2012, with responses received from 18 architectural firms. The budget specified was $300,000 to $400,000. Six of the 18 firms were interviewed, and all of the local architects were passed over in favor of Joel Sanders, adjunct professor of architecture at Yale, with offices in Manhattan. Mr. Sanders was selected by the Board at their January 3, 2013 meeting. No members of the public were present.
By October 2013, Mr. Sanders had received $52,000 of our money and had delivered a plan for a $1.4 million building, breaking the budget by fourfold. One might think the Library Board would take a breather at that point and assess how they’d gotten there. Perhaps bring in the other architects and see what they might propose for $1.4 million. Bring in the public and see whether they’re on board with the project at that price. Maybe look at how that sum of money might be applied to the needs of the existing structures, growing toward the north and relieving the chronic parking problem with extra spots on the laundromat site.
But the Library Board didn’t work that way; just five weeks later they approved the Sanders plan with a higher price tag of $1.6 million. The minutes of that meeting indicate no members of the public present, other than one person seeking a seat on the Board and a consultant who spoke up and was promptly offered a $20,000 job to promote the annex to prospective donors.
While Mr. Sanders was developing his design with no apparent budget considerations, and while the Board president was telling the Daily Freeman that the cost was “expected to be less than $500,000” (June 11, 2013), the Board was seeking and received an exemption from all Town Code, by resolution of the Town Board on July 9, 2013. You and I and every business in town must comply with the Town Code, including reviews by the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, but the library gets a free pass.
I asked earlier how a major project could get all the way through a long design phase and then get just 216 votes in favor out of thousands eligible in 2007. After researching this annex project for three months — yes, I came late to the table — I find that very few people know anything about it. Few know that the cost quadrupled and was then quickly approved without calling a public hearing. No one knows that the cost was kept under wraps through the public vote on the library budget last September 5. No one knows that the Board plans no staff in the annex for the first year, and only part time staff thereafter. And most importantly, no one knows what this annex would cost the taxpayer, because the Board president says “…it is not very important to try to guess what the future operating costs will be…” It’s not guesses we’re looking for; we want accurate estimates by professionals who know what they’re doing.
The lack of public awareness is not our fault; it’s testament to the failure of the process that includes so little public participation and ignores dissenting views. The Board spends time talking about whether to put public comment into their minutes, as they did recently on March 20 and April 9, when they should be strategizing how to increase public participation in the planning process. The public needs to be brought along from the beginning and at every stage of the process, with future budgets and tax increases on the table from day one. Who wants to vote “yes” for the unknown? Around 216 people in 2007, and probably no more than that in 2014. We don’t really want to strangle the library budgets each September. Most Woodstockers love the library and want to see it grow and modernize. The Library Board has it in their power to make this happen.
The annex plan is wrong for the library. We need a new Request for Proposal that addresses the deficiencies of the library and its future needs through new construction on the back, filling out the lot and keeping the architectural character of the neighborhood. We need to go to the Board meetings each month and drive this point right up to the September 4 budget vote. And then on to the September 3 budget vote next year. At some point they’re going to get the message.
John Ludwig is a former Chairman of the Woodstock Planning Board.