AFTER BUDGET DEFEAT, RESIDENTS URGE LIBRARY BOARD TO “GO BACK TO SQUARE ONE”; BOARD DECIDES TO SCALE DOWN SIZE OF PROJECT
BACSeptember 23, 2015 -- The proposed purchase of the Halm Property on Glen Head Road and the building of a new library once again dominated the public comment period at the Gold Coast Public Library Board’s regularly scheduled meeting last Wednesday. About four of the ten or so residents who attended addressed the board and urged the trustees to not hold a community vote on the current proposal that is likely to cost between $17 and $19 million and that would be financed through a bond issue, should a majority of voters support the proposition in a referendum to be held later this fall, and to either scale down the current 20,000 square foot preliminary design concept that has been presented by the architect, reconsider other properties, or give up on a library expansion altogether. Much of the discussion, as it has at past meetings, turned to the definition of “library” and what functions a community library ought to perform. Later in the meeting, after the public comment period had ended, the board appeared to reach consensus that it would work with the architect to scale down the size of the project and, by extension, its cost.
The comments came one week after 58% of the 725 voters who turned out to the polls voted “no” on the 2016 library budget that would have increased taxes for the average household by about 27 cents per month, and two candidates opposed to the current library expansion proposal were elected to the nine-member library board unseating two incumbents who support the new building proposal, one a founding member of the library back in 2001. The Bond proposition that would grant the library board permission to finance the purchase of the property and the building of the library was not on the ballot, and will not be put before voters until late this fall.
A Frost Pond Road resident was the first to speak. Placing a chair at the opening of the horseshoe-shaped dais and taking a seat there, the gentleman, referencing prepared notes, questioned the board for about 25 minutes regarding the cost of the new library proposal, its scope, and need. He opened saying that he was very pleased with the library as it is and that he believed the “budget got caught up” in the debate over the new library proposal. He characterized some of the information the library has disseminated through its newsletter and other literature as “opaque,” asserting that statements concerning cost and other issues lacked clarity. Although the bond proposal to purchase the Halm property and build a new library was not on the ballot, he stated that the vote sent a message. “The proposal [for a new library] has effectively been defeated,” he said, “either you accept it or you don’t.”
Asserting that a library is “about books, computers and DVDs” and should be most “interested in attracting children,” and that he had never had difficulty parking at the current facility, he challenged whether a library ought to perform the functions that the library literature has said a larger facility would - specifically being a “community meeting place,” a “creative venue,” and a place that would help promote “life-long learning.”
The Town of Oyster Bay, the gentleman said, already provides a community meeting place at its community center on Glen Head Road. Additionally he questioned whether the library was an appropriate venue for cultural events and adult education. “What is lifelong learning?” he asked, and continued that he believed residents could take courses through Nassau Community College or the North Shore Schools community education program. “A cultural center?,” he said. “What do you need that for in Glen Head? What culture are you talking about. . . . Are we really going to have Les Miserables come to Glen Head?” He stated that with Glen Head’s proximity to Manhattan and nearby cultural venues such as the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor and the Tilles Center in Brookville, it was not necessary for a community library to perform that function.
In response, Board President Nancy Benchimol said that the “community room” in the preliminary proposals presented by the architect would be a space that would be primarily for library programs, but that it would also be available for use to the community. “The community center is not available to us,” she said explaining efforts to use the TOB facility for library programs. “We’ve had to rent out the legion hall.”
Trustee Barbara Palermo added that the library has had trouble getting permission from the town to use the community center for its own programs.
Trustee Miles Sibell said that several groups already use the Community center, including Alcoholics Anonymous, the Boys and Girls Club, and Boy Scouts. He said that the library “does things six or seven days a week,” and that it can “only do one thing at a time,” with its current space at the rented annex. Demand for library programs, he continued, has expanded significantly, growing to 600 per year. “The purpose of a library is to serve the needs and interests of the community,” he said. “If you don’t have the space, then you have to find it.”
“The meeting room is meant for the library,” said Trustee Kevin Kelly. “But when we’re not using it, then someone else in the community can use it.”
Addressing the resident’s contention that offering cultural events and adult classes are not the proper function of a library, Mr. Kelly said, “The function of a library is educational.”
“A lot of people cannot afford a trip to Carnegie Hall or Broadway,” added Trustee Amy Kempton. Referencing Benjamin Franklin, she said that libraries are a “venue for democracy,” in that they provide learning and cultural opportunities to everyone, allowing citizens regardless of their station in life to have access. Ms. Kempton, said that many libraries have high quality shows, and cited the Great Neck Public Library’s “Levels” venue, which is a performance space for library programs, but that is also used by members of the community.
“This [the new library proposal] doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing,” said a Glenwood Landing resident, who said that the defeat of the budget was really about the new library proposal. “The community is not going to pay for it.” Asserting that the current proposal is too big, she urged the board to “go back to square one and to develop a new proposal,” based on a definition of “library” people can agree upon. The resident also expressed concern about accurate information getting out. “Rumors are getting out of hand,” she said, and cited as an example another resident saying to her that she had heard the new library would have a rotating stage.
Greenvale resident Tim Coville, who had served on the library board for six years, and had been on the board during the period in 2010 when community focus groups were organized to solicit input from residents regarding how the library could be improved, said that he believed the community had expressed its opinion on the new library initiative. “The public is sending a message,” he said, and continued that he understood the need for more space based on the focus group feedback, but believed that the current 20,000 square foot proposal was too large, and that the board ought to go back to the architect and ask for a scaled down proposal for the Halm property. “We do not need an additional cultural center,” the former trustee said. Mr. Coville also stated that he believed it was important for the board to schedule a date for when the vote would be held.
As the public comment period came to a close, Northwordnews asked what the voter turn out was when the community approved the establishment of the library in 2001. More than 2600, one of the trustees replied. Others said they thought the figure was greater.
Following public comment all but one member of the audience departed, not sticking around for the board discussion of the remaining items on the agenda, which had been distributed to all in attendance at the start of the meeting. Those items included revisions to the 2016 library budget, which, as a result of the previous week’s vote, cannot exceed the current year’s spending plan, and a discussion of the new library initiative.
With regard to the new building initiative, several of the trustees said that they believed that the library had to do a better job of communicating with the community.
Trustee Kelly said that most people he had spoken to “like the idea of a new library” but that the board was doing “a poor job of getting the message out there.” “How do we get out to the wider community?” he asked. Perhaps weekly e-mails, he suggested. Other board members stated social media, such as facebook and twitter, should be used as well as hard copies of informational “fact sheets.”
Trustee Toby Kupferman suggested enlisting the help of people in the community who would act as “ambassadors” who would be able to speak to residents. She said that the library “was not doing a good job of explaining what other libraries have.”
As for revisions to the current proposal, Trustee Craig Henneberger suggested that the board go back to the architect and request that he present design concepts scaling down the size of the new library to 15,000 or even 12,000 square feet. A few of the trustees voiced agreement, and none expressed opposition. In a follow up communication by Northwordnews to library director Mike Morea, he confirmed that the board had indeed reached consensus on that matter, and that they had decided to reduce the size of the proposal and by extension the cost, and would be working with the architect to develop scaled down plans.
There was also discussion regarding scheduling a voting date for the bond referendum. State law requires that the board give at least 45 days notice to the public before holding the vote. Trustee Kelly stated that he believed the board should go ahead and schedule it for December 15, the last date on which it could be held according to the contract with the owner of the Halm property. He said it would give the public certainty as to when the vote would be held. There was disagreement among other members whether that should be done, as there is a possibility that if everything that needs to be in place before a vote is held, such as the environmental impact findings, are not in place, that an extension could be granted by the seller, which would push the date further back. The board did not come to a decision on the matter.
The nine trustees and Library Director Mike Morea also discussed the rejection of the budget, and what changes would be made to the 2016 spending plan. Under state law, if a budget is defeated, spending cannot exceed the previous year’s. As a result the board is required to shave about $12,000 from its original proposal.
Board President Benchimol stated that the library staff took the defeat of the budget particularly hard. Although the increase in taxes resulting from the new budget would have been miniscule and the library district tax makes up roughly 1% of a resident’s overall property tax burden, she said that she believed voters were making a general statement about their displeasure with high taxes in general and not any displeasure the community feels towards the library. “Voters used this as an opportunity to say ‘no.’ This is one of the two times when citizens have the right to say ‘no,” with only the library budget and school budget having to be approved by referendum, while all others taxing entities, including special districts, the town, and the county not having to put their budgets and tax increases before residents for a public vote. Another trustee noted that the garbage district tax had recently been increased by more than 26%.
Library Director Michael Morea made his recommendations for cuts. He stated that two clerks would be leaving, and that the cost of filling those positions would save the library about $4500 since the new hires would be at starting salary. Additionally, he suggested cutting $1000 for “computers,”, and an additional $6390 from the “outside consultants line.” The board agreed to the revisions.
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