View: A municipal library in Woodstock makes better sense

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The Woodstock Public Library will be a stronger and more substantial institution if we all come together and make it our municipal library. Municipal libraries are everywhere in New York State — 197 of them in all 63 counties.

By contrast, district libraries like ours — only 54 in total — are found in just 18 of the 63 counties. Only 7 percent of the libraries in New York State are district libraries.

I’m proposing that we make the change from district library to municipal library. We can do that by holding a referendum of the Woodstock voters to say Yes or No to the question of dissolving the library district. Let the voters decide.

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The Library will not close and there will be no change in operations. We’ll continue to partner with the Mid-Hudson Library Service and to benefit from the Interlibrary Loan system, which so many people use and love. The director and the staff will continue providing the same services we all depend on. The frenzied reaction to the dissolution proposal, now three weeks old, has been completely overblown.

District libraries such as Woodstock’s are defined by several elements in the law. The New York State Education Department explains on their website “The municipality collects taxes on behalf of the [district] library and turns the funds over to the library board, which is completely autonomous.” The NYSED goes on to explain “Once a budget to fund a Special Legislative District Public Library is approved by voters, funding will remain at the same level until a subsequent vote changes the amount.”

Please read that last sentence again, because it holds the key to the hysteria that’s been unleashed by the possibility of dissolving the district. There’s a ratchet effect in the taxation, written into law. It’s what our Library Director euphemistically refers to as “sustainable funding.” The taxes can go up, but they can’t come down. The Yes and No choices voters have on the Library budget are more like “Yes plus” and “Yes.” Fewer than 10 percent of registered voters bother to show up for the budget vote, perhaps because they feel their vote won’t make a difference.

With that tap flowing consistently year after year, it’s not surprising that a district library board might become complacent. Perhaps they’d feel free to spend $230,000 on a building plan, as our Library Board did five years ago, and to write in their meeting minutes “the campaign strategy is to try and solicit funding from major givers before welcoming and seeking broader based community support.” What kind of public library is it that doesn’t seek community support? The annex plan never had the community’s support, the major donors never materialized and we’re never getting that quarter-million back. So many good things could have been done with that money. After the annex plan was finally put to rest in 2014, the Board raised our taxes 2 percent.  Since then, they’ve raised the library tax another 7.1 percent.

Another defining element of a district library is the election of trustees by district voters. In our case, there are 11 library trustees with five-year terms. This appears to have been designed for stability, the result being slow turnover and little opportunity for the voters to make a change. The election system governing the Town Board is far more democratic. Three of the five Town Board members must stand for reelection every two years. If we don’t like our Town Board, we have the opportunity every two years to replace a majority of them.

The Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State tells us “Trustees must fulfill the duties commonly referred to as ‘care, loyalty, and obedience’ and must be tireless advocates for improving library services.”

A completely autonomous board with slow turnover, a consistently flowing tap of tax dollars and a mandate for obedience and tireless advocacy – what could possibly go wrong?

In the 28-year history of the Woodstock Public Library District, we’ve watched the Board of Trustees let the building deteriorate to the point that they’re now removing rotted wooden gutters and throwing them away. Everyone who walks through the door breathes stale, recirculated air because the Board won’t budget for a new HVAC system. The glaring fluorescent lighting was overdue for replacement a decade ago. The entrance is not ADA compliant, despite many pleadings for the Board to do something about that.

People say if we’re not happy with the representation we’re getting from the Library Board, we should just vote them out. Well, that’s exactly what we’re doing with this referendum. With a Yes vote on the referendum, we can get a new Board of Trustees appointed by the Town Board, which has a good track record at filling the boards and advisory committees in Woodstock.

The Board of Regents thought about this and wrote in our library’s 1990 charter “Upon dissolution of the corporation, the board of trustees shall…dispose of the remaining assets of the corporation exclusively for one or more exempt purposes…or shall distribute the [assets] to the Federal government, or to a state or local government, for a public purpose.” This is the time to start a conversation with the Town Board about creating a municipal library for Woodstock.

The Library Board had an opportunity last fall to connect with the community through the Growth and Bonding Survey. They worked for three months developing the questions, producing numerous drafts. The survey was widely distributed, including a clever random element (the blue surveys) that assured the integrity of the result. The return was a respectable 16 percent. Fifty-seven percent of respondents chose a renovation option for the Library, and only 25 percent chose to build new, which was the Trustees’ choice.

Since that time, the Trustees have debased themselves claiming their questions were confusing and that they were “bullied” into doing the survey. Their suggestion that they wouldn’t have done the survey if not bullied is testament to the fact that they care little about the opinions of the community they serve. So they voted on January 18 to tear down the Library and build a new one, and they haven’t called a meeting of the residents yet to tell us about their plans.  Quite the opposite, in fact – this past Monday they kicked out a room full of people who had come to watch them choose three architects as finalists for the new library design.

The advantages of municipal libraries are numerous. Municipal taxes offer discounts to veterans and seniors — library taxes do not. Town services are consolidated — engineer, attorney, maintenance, custodial and parking. Facilities are shared and put to the best use. A lot of money is saved.

Library operations won’t be affected by the change, and the employees in a municipal library will receive the same pensions and benefits as all Town employees.

A municipal library under Town Board oversight would be incapable of wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars, as this Library Board has done over the last decade.

Finally, we’ll save our historic Library from the wrecking ball. For many, the decision to sign the petition is all about preserving the neglected building that so many of us love. When the architect Harvey Cohn presented his preliminary Master Plan to the Trustees in November 2016, he said of the building that he would “renovate it to all the action items that we listed, all the more difficult items that we listed, bring this up to par in every possible way, relocate mechanical equipment to grade level, abandon the cellar.”

Despite Mr. Cohn’s encouraging words, the Library Board has done nothing to investigate renovation. When they told the Town Board on June 12 that they’ve done their “due diligence” in rejecting renovation, they were ignoring the words of their own Master Plan architect.

Please sign the petition to call for a referendum, and then come out and vote Yes in the fall to secure a better future for our Library.

There is one comment

  1. Lea Cullen Boyer

    Yes please. The library housed under the municipality could save money through shared services. Libray directors are notoriously underpaidl. Better benefits for all staff would help retain good employees. Accountability to the community is vital.

    Would want the staff to take more training. I stepped Into the bathroom last week and counted 14 signs written at various points in time in a myriad of clashing designs, colors, fonts. Among these was the library hours, information unnecessary for using the bathroom in my opinion. If you need 14 signs to operate a bathroom it’s time for a change.

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