The Highland Public Library Board of Trustees held a public hearing in St. Augustine’s community room on Monday, March 9 in preparation for the vote on Tuesday, March 17, when residents residing within the Highland Central School District taxpayer base will be asked to approve a $4.8 million bond to pay for construction of a 10,250-square-foot library at 7 Elting Place in Highland.
If the bond passes, a homeowner whose property is assessed at $250,000 will pay approximately $6.50 more in taxes per month if the library is built, or $78 per year for the length of the 25-year bond. That amount is the maximum that will be spent, said Highland Library Board of Trustees president Joanne Loewenthal, with the final cost expected to be reduced further through ongoing fundraising by the library and grant opportunities.
The library’s attorney, Robert Schofield, and financial analysts, Chuck Bastian and Jason Schwartz, were present at the public hearing to answer questions along with lead architect Paul Mays of Butler Rowland Mays Architects, LLP.
Before the public was invited to ask those questions, Loewenthal addressed some of the issues that she and the board have already heard within the community since the bond was proposed. “One of the concerns we’ve heard is that we might be creating an ‘attractive nuisance,'” she said, defining that as an area of a property where youth might engage in “unhealthy activities.” The focus for that apprehension has been the back of the proposed new building, but Loewenthal said if one looks at the site plan, the building has been sited on the property in such a way that “there really is no ‘back of the building,'” and police cars on Elting Avenue will have a direct line of sight to the end of the parking lot. “In fact,” she added, “there are already some paths there on the property that the youth of the community have found to get out of adult sight, and our project will actually improve that and make it a safer area than it might be today.”
Another issue for the community has been the fact that the project takes the library from a 2,900-square-foot building to a 10,000-square-foot building. “‘Can’t you do something in between?'” has been asked, said Loewenthal, “and yes, we could, if you eliminate the community center included in the project.” But that community center, she continued, was one of the things that the board and architects heard was important to residents over the course of 41 meetings held these past two years in the planning of the project. The community center will be available to residents to use outside of library hours, as well.
Loewenthal said an increase to the size of the library has been called for since 1989, when then-library trustees commissioned a study to determine what the future of the library should be. They concluded then, 26 years ago, that with the changing demographics of the area — keeping in mind that the Highland Library is chartered as a school district public library, with its tax base encompassing the entire school district, not just Highland and the Town of Lloyd — the library had outgrown 30 Church Street, and a building of 10,000 square feet was recommended to allow the library to serve the population that uses it. “And remember this was recommended in 1989,” Loewenthal said, “and we haven’t increased incrementally since then.”
Despite the larger size of the building, utility costs are not expected to increase the operating budget beyond 2-5 percent, said architect Paul Mays. “Our engineers estimate that the cost to operate the utilities in the system we’re describing would be in the range of $2-$3 a square foot. In your 2014 budget, you paid $3.84 a square foot in your existing building.” Current standards of energy efficiency make the difference, with the library currently housed in an old Victorian-era structure lacking insulation and modern windows. The proposed library will also utilize daylight-harvesting systems, said Mays, that can dim or shut off lights if natural lighting is present and there will be timers and light sensors on the exterior lights so that they’ll only be on as long as the library is open. The library will have a more efficient gas system for heating and cooling. Currently the library budgets $5,000 per year for heating oil, said Loewenthal, “and we’ve already had to go beyond that.”
Employee costs are expected to remain the same despite the larger structure. Even though 60 percent of the library’s operating budget goes toward staffing, the one-story building has been designed with interior sight lines so that the existing staff will be able to supervise the entire space. An additional concern from residents, said Loewenthal, is that the library would have to hire someone to open and close the building at night when community groups use the space for meetings. “We’re still a small enough community that we’re hoping to trust someone in the group to open and close the building, and they’ll be responsible. We believe we can operate this building without increasing staff.”
If a new library is built, the current building on Church Street will be put up for sale, with proceeds going toward reducing the final cost of the bond. The building was recently assessed at $360,000, said Loewenthal. And while the building has many problems currently, one thing a new owner wouldn’t have to do is replace the boiler, which the library had to do at a cost of $10,000 when it broke down last November.
The property at 7 Elting Place, currently an empty lot used by St. Augustine’s Church for overflow event parking, will be purchased from the Archdiocese of New York for $125,000 contingent upon the bond passing. As church property, it is already off the tax rolls, so use of that property keeps the tax base in Highland stable in not utilizing a building currently contributing to the tax base.
Another issue raised at the public hearing had to do with the site chosen for the new library. The location proposed is two-tenths of a mile from the current 30 Church Street library and within the boundaries of what a recent town master plan has defined as the town center, said Loewenthal, a half mile radius from the intersection of Milton Avenue and Vineyard Turnpike.
But one man at the hearing said he thought that determining whether the project was “worth it” came down to “a vision as to what you want your community to be. And in that vein,” he continued, he was disappointed that the new library wouldn’t be close enough to the downtown district to contribute to its revitalization. “One of the most critical aspects of this investment is not only the library itself, which I completely support, but the regeneration of the downtown. The people who come and use the library are not going to be intimately associated with the downtown area; they’re not going to walk downtown and get a slice of pizza. And this is a big problem for me.”
Another resident at the hearing suggested that walking more is something we all should be doing anyway, and that perhaps the downtown businesses could get together with the library to offer discounts to patrons of both.
In response to the concerns about the location in relation to the downtown district, Loewenthal said, “Let me assure you, that the concerns you’ve expressed have been a point of discussion for the library board with members of the Town Board, the Planning Board and the economic development committee, but we’re talking about a number of factors that had to go into the decision.” Trustees evaluated more than 25 properties as prospective sites for a new library before choosing the location on Elting Place, she said. The choice to build on the site was made after consideration of what the community told the board they wanted and could afford in a new library. “We had to balance everything we heard. People in town said emphatically, ‘Keep it in the town center,’ and they want a community room. Some of the dreams people had, for outside classrooms and walking paths, were nice concepts but didn’t make it. Elting is reasonable in terms of cost, it’s well within the definition of the town center, it’s partially cleared and it allows for handicapped accessibility and parking. We came up with what we feel is a cost effective plan that meets the needs of the community.”
The vote will be held on Tuesday, March 17 in the St. Augustine’s community room at 35 Phillips Avenue, across the street from the proposed site for the library. Polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. All registered voters residing in the Highland Central School District who pay taxes to that district are eligible to vote, not just residents of the Town of Lloyd. Absentee ballots are still available, with information available about that from library director Julie Kelsall-Dempsey at email@example.com or the board of trustees at firstname.lastname@example.org. Updates on the proposed project can be found on Facebook.com under “Citizens for a New Highland Library.”