CANDIDATES AGREE COMMUNITY NEEDS NEW LIBRARY; DISAGREE OVER WHERE AND HOW
September 5, 2015 -- The five candidates competing for the three seats up for grabs on the Gold Coast Library Board of Trustees introduced themselves and responded to community members’ questions at a Meet the Candidates forum held last Thursday evening, August 28. Incumbents Nancy Benchimol, Craig Henneberger and Miles Sibell are each seeking re-election, and Rudolph Hertlein and Anthony Papiro, both long time residents of the Todd Estates section of Glen Head, are running for the first time. The three year terms of the winners will not begin until January.
The candidates did not field a single question concerning the proposed 2016 budget, which represents a 0.74% increase over the current year’s spending plan (an approximately $0.27 per month tax increase for the average homeowner), and that will be on the ballot for voters to consider on September 9 when the trustees election is also held. Rather, all but one question related to the Library Board’s proposed purchase of the 5.39 acre Halm Industries property on Glen Head Road and the building of a new library, with candidates asked to comment on what functions a library should perform, the scale of the Halm property proposal, and the process the board has followed and will follow moving forward in preparation for a bond referendum to be held most likely three months from now during the late fall.
While there was disagreement over whether the Halm property was the most desirable site for a new library, all five candidates stated that they believed the current library facility is too small to meet the community's needs, and that a larger space is required. The three incumbents support the purchase of Halm, which they said is ultimately a community decision, while Mr. Hurtlein proposed renting the empty St. Hyacinth's grammar school, and Mr. Papiro said that the library needed "to go back to square one" in looking for a property.
Ms. Benchimol, a former four-term trustee on the North Shore School Board and a Library Board trustee since the library’s inception in 2001, and currently its president, explained that she is running once again because of the “major challenges the library faces” - in building a new library if the December bond referendum is passed - or if not, how to address the library’s need for more space.
“A library is more than just books and more than just reading,” she explained. “I think it is a place and a center where we can learn and can expand our minds.”
“Learning,” she continued, “can come from reading books, from programs and from working and communicating with each other.” She added that “we need a space where teenagers and school kids can come and have a quiet area to work collaboratively or individually. Even adults need a quiet place where they can read or work on some kind of a project.” A library being simply a place that is a repository for books, she said, is outdated and that the limited space greatly limits what many in the community would like the library to be able to do.
Mr. Henneberger, an attorney who has served on the library board for the past four years, and has been a coach in youth sports leagues, said that he is “a big believer in libraries” and that the current library is not adequate to meet the demand for the services that libraries provide. A library “is an information center,” he said, and continued that he would like to have a library with sufficiently sized reading rooms for children where “moms, dads, and kids could be together in the same place and not be separated and not be limited in the number of people that can enter the facility.” Additionally he said he would like to have a facility that allows the library to conduct the programs that many in the community desire and that it would like to offer - “everything from cultural programs to lectures to art exhibits to exercise programs.” All of these programs, he said, must currently compete for time and space in the library annex - a rented meeting room in a neighboring building that is in contract to be sold. The library’s lease he said, expires this May.
Mr. Hertlein, an accountant who has worked in many different capacities in the financial services industry and who is also a member of the Todd Estates Civic Association, said that he is “pro-library” and that he recognized that “there is a parking problem and a shortage of space.” He continued that he believes that the current library board is “out of touch,” and that the library was taking on the role of a community center, which he believes is not its proper purpose. The preliminary proposal for 20,000 square foot library was too big and too expensive, he said.
A library, Mr. Hertlein stated a few minutes later, “is for the educational function of reading. It should be for library functions - books, reading materials, promoting reading - not movies.” He suggested that the movie days and nights the library hosts be held in the High School auditorium instead of at the library. And still later during the discussion he commented that students are not using libraries because they have IPads. “Every library in the country,” he said, “is downsizing” because everything is on the computer. He cited the St. John’s University Library as an example. “We are going in the opposite direction,” he said.
Mr. Sibell, a small businessman and a principal founder of the Gold Coast Library 15 years ago and who has served on its board since then, explained that he believed the role and functions of a community library have changed significantly since when he was a child - “when it was just a place to go for books.”
“That world is different now,” he said. And while parents of young children continue to want reading from actual books, as may others in the community, there are other roles that the 21st century library plays, he explained. “The library over the last 30 years, not in this community so much, but in most communities in our area, has been an area of social engagement - an area where people go for various activities, for services. . . . The library has become the community’s second living room. A place where many things can be going on to appeal to the full range of the audience of the community.”
Mr. Sibell disputed Mr. Hertlein’s contention that libraries are downsizing, saying that community libraries serve a significantly different function from school and university libraries. “You can’t get lost in seeing the word ‘library’ and having a very limited perception of what that means. If you research libraries around Nassau and Suffolk Counties,” he said, “you would find that public libraries have been expanding quite substantially and continue to do so.”
Mr. Papiro, who like Mr. Hertlein is active in the Todd Estates Civic Association, and professionally has been an executive in the Aerospace industry and currently works in commercial and industrial real estate, explained that he “gives a lot of credit to the people who floated the library” more than a decade ago, and that he is not against building a new library. However, he said, he believes that buying the Halm property and the preliminary design proposals are “too grandiose.” Mr. Papiro continued that he believed that the library is used primarily by young residents and senior citizens. “I don’t feel the people in between are using the services,” he explained, and said that he supported efforts to reach out to that constituency.
Mr. Hertlein questioned whether the board had considered other properties. In his introduction, he stated that as a community service he is a financial advisor to St. Hyacinth’s in Glen Head, and a few times over the course of the evening said the 25,000 square foot unoccupied grammar school there would be a more desirable place for a new library, with rent costing about $350,000 per year.
He asked the incumbent board members whether they had considered that property, or the Bernard’s property on Glen Cove Avenue, the bank triangle across from the Firehouse or spoken to the town about using Tappen beach.
The three board trustees at the dais responded collectively that they had, and that several properties had been considered over the past several years.
Mr. Papiro also said that other properties ought to be looked at and that the Halm property should not be under consideration. “We need to go back to square one, and find another source that’s available to the library,” he asserted. “The board should not be designing and redesigning what may or may not go on that property. We need to find another piece of property.”
Responding to Mr. Hertlein’s proposal that the library consider renting St. Hyacinth’s, Mr. Sibell said that the community owns its current library building and that “the idea of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent something as opposed to developing ownership in a permanent institution in a community - the logic of that really does escape me.”
Mr. Henneberger said that the library would also incur significant additional costs of having to renovate the St. Hyacinth building, a building it wouldn't own, and that the location of Halm was more central and far more accessible than St. Hyacinth's.
The candidates also debated whether or not it was advantageous to buy a 5.39 acre parcel of land, when the library would most likely only be using half of it for the building and parking.
Ms. Benchimol explained that the owner was unwilling to divide the property.
Mr. Sibell stated that the community would have control over what happens to the unused portion of the property, and if it is sold, whom it would be sold to through a public vote, as is required by law. “The community will have control over the outcome of this property. There will be discussions in the community,” he said. “The property cannot be disposed of without the permission of the public."
Mr. Henneberger said that his “personal position has been that the library should sell half the property,” and to position the new library on the parcel so as to ensure the highest possible value for the unused half, which he said, would be used to pay down the debt from the land purchase.
Mr. Hertlein said that the library should not be buying the land before deciding how to use it. Buying the entire property and then selling half of it, he asserted, was in his opinion “not fiscally responsible.”
Mr. Papiro said that the extra property, which is zoned residential, might be difficult to have it rezoned which could in turn make it difficult to sell. “Maybe we’ll be stuck with excess property.”
Financial considerations, including both the cost of the project, and the potential shift in tax burden to residents resulting from the decommissioning of the Glenwood Power Plant were touched upon briefly by the candidates throughout the course of the evening.
[According to information that has been posted on the Library’s "New Library" website since early August and that has been stated by the library board at public meetings, the estimated cost of the property and construction of a new library will be between 15 and $19 million which will be financed through a bond issue subject to voter approval in a referendum to be held this December. The precise cost and information regarding the impact on each individual homeowner’s tax bill can currently be found on the "New Library" website's tax calculator. Additionally the general design and size of the library will be known before the vote, the board has said repeatedly at its public meetings and on its “New Library Initiative” informational website and in press releases. The board has also stated in public meetings, press releases,and on its informational website that the goal is to keep the tax impact of the bond to under $100 per year for the majority of taxpayers and has also stated at public meetings that currently the library portion on a resident's tax bill makes up anywhere from 0.8% to 1.16% of a resident’s overall property taxes.
As for the future impact of the power plant decommissioning on residents’ tax bills, there is uncertainty. A New York State law that has been renewed annually limits the tax shift from one property class to another to 1%, as happened this past year. This upcoming year, public officials have reported that there will be no shift.]
During Thursday’s forum, Mr. Hertlein stated that he believed the cost of the proposed new library was too high and that the debt service would place too much of a burden on homeowners’ wallets.
Mr. Sibell stated that homeowners would know exactly how much the debt service for the new library bond would impact their individual tax bills before the bond vote. The library portion of one’s tax bill, he said, is very small already and said he believed residents when they see the actual impact of the new library proposal on their taxes "will be quite happy with what the library has to offer."
As for Glenwood Landing Power Plant decommissioning, Mr. Sibell said that he has spoken to many elected officials, and had been a liaison to the school board on visits to Albany regarding the LIPA issue. “There is not a completed answer at this time,” he said, with regard to the impact of the decommissioning on residents’ tax bills. “Anyone who suggests differently,” he continued, “is just not up to date with their information as they would need to be.”
Mr. Papiro, said that George Pombar, head of the Glen Head Civic Council, has said that the impact of the power plant decomissioning is going to be $2500 dollars per household. He asked Mr. Pombar, who was sitting in the audience, if that was accurate. “Absolutely. . . When it happens,” he replied.
“It’s just a matter of time and how much is implemented each year,” Mr. Papiro said.
During his closing statement, Mr. Henneberger said that "a lot of numbers had been thrown around" during the forum and that "a lot were inaccurate." He encouraged residents to visit the library's website and to attend future meetings to get accurate information.
The candidates also fielded questions concerning the process the library board has followed in putting together a proposal for the community to vote on this coming December, and how well it has communicated information to residents.
[In mid-December 2014, the library had sent out a letter to residents and issued a press release notifying the community that it had been in negotiations to purchase the 5.39 acre Halm property. “In response to community feedback about the need for more space, the Gold Coast Public Library Board of Trustees has reached an agreement in principle to acquire property if voters ultimately approve the purchase,” the letter stated. Seven months later, after six monthly regular Board meetings, which are open to the public, and two "community input sessions" in April during which residents were given the opportunity to offer their input on what they would like to see in a new library, the Board announced on July 1st that it had signed a contract with Halm to purchase the land for $5.7 million. The purchase is contingent upon the community granting its approval through a bond referendum to finance the cost of the property and the cost of constructing a new library. Since going into contract, an architect has twice, at public board meetings, presented preliminary design concepts, based on input from residents at the sessions held in April, and on September 10th another presentation on the preliminary design proposals will be offered. In early August the library launched its "New Library Initiative" website. That website states that the library will share information with the pubic in mailings, emails, through social media and public presentations. Additionally the site will include library design concepts, as well as a calculator which will enable residents to figure out the impact of the purchase of the property and the construction of a new library will have on their individual taxes, before the vote is held.]
On Thursday night, both Mr. Hertlein, and Mr. Papiro were critical of the process and the way in which the library board has communicated with the public, and called for more “transparency.”
“Hello . . . why don’t you speak up and tell the community what you want to do,” Mr. Hertlein said, as if addressing the library board collectively. He said there should have been information gathering sessions in which the board took into consideration the space that was needed and the cost. “You don’t go and hire a marketing firm to ask everybody what they would like.You start with ‘how much do we need, how much is it going to cost, and how much is the community going to have to spend on it.'”
“We need more transparency. We don’t need to drop a bomb on the community when the timing is very bad,” said Mr. Papiro. Later he stated, that some in the community “don’t even know when there is a vote or that there has been a proposal put forward. I will educate the person I come into contact with, and give them my perspective. I’m looking for a businessman’s approach to the library and get a little more business acumen into the decision making process.”
As for process and transparency, Ms. Benchimol, Mr. Henneberger, and Mr. Sibell emphasized that the purchase was contingent upon community approval, and that it was important for voters to have complete and accurate information before casting votes in a bond referendum. Ultimately, the three emphasized, it is a community decision.
Explaining the process by which the building proposition will be put before voters, Ms. Benchimol said that the board had “initiated a process that will all the community to make a decision as to whether they want a library. Without us doing what we’re doing, you would have as a community no way of being able to get a new building. When we made the decision to negotiate for the Halm property, it was with the understanding that a contract would be drawn up and the community makes its decision.”
Mr. Sibell stated that “The Board’s job is to evaluate the needs, and in the instance of a potential purchase, to negotiate arrangements on which the public will then discuss and make a decision. We are not the ones buying the property. We are the ones who have done due diligence, and have made the negotiation.” Ultimately he stated, the community will make the final decision.
As for communicating with the public, Mr. Henneberger said, “I don’t see how we can be any more transparent. All of our meetings are open. The newsletter has provided information.. . . We cannot control what is put out on facebook.” He estimated that upwards of 75 people from the community had attended informational meetings and sessions with the architect. A relatively small group in the community is “driving mis-information about this library,” he said.
As for discussing the proposed purchase in executive session, Mr. Henneberger said that it is important to be careful not to negotiate real estate purchases in public, and that it is appropriate, responsible, and in the best interests of taxpayers to hold such discussions in executive session out of public view. “When you negotiate for real estate, you don’t go around telling everybody, ‘oh, we might like to buy this building’ because immediately the first thing that is going to happen is the price is going to go up as they say there is a demand for this. We had to speak to our counsel on how to conduct ourselves and to negotiate carefully, and make the contract conditioned upon approval by the community of our plan.” He continued, “I cannot stress this enough - we cannot do anything without the approval of the community at the vote we will hold. We now need to do our best between now and the vote to get all of the accurate information out to the community, explain our position, and to explain to them.”
As the forum neared its conclusion, one last question was asked - and it had absolutely nothing to do with the building of a new library but one of the most important functions of a Library Board - choosing a director. “Assume Mr. Morea has just left his position as library director having just been hired to head the New York City Library system," the audience members said, introducing her question, "What qualities would you look for in applicants when hiring a new director?”
Mr. Sibell said that he believed that as libraries have increasingly become less about housing books and more about technology and providing other services, the library board, when it hired Mr. Morea, conducted many interviews and was looking for someone with the technological expertise to “direct the library of the future. Mr. Morea with his background as the information Technologies Director for the Nassau County library system fit the bill. He said they would look for someone with Mr. Morea’s skillset.
Mr. Henneberger agreed and added that he would look for someone with “good interpersonal skills, the ability to manage people, the ability to deal with budgeting, the ability to deal with the public.” Of Mr. Morea, he said, “he masks some of our limitations by what he is able to do for us.”
Mr. Hertlein replied that the library would look for someone like Mr. Morea.
Mr. Papiro said that a good director “has to be a good manager of people and to manage the assets of the library.”
The library trustees election and budget vote will take place at the Gold Coast Public Library on Wednesday, September 9, from 9 am to 9 pm.
The bond referendum for the purchase of the Halm Property and the construction of a new libary is not on the ballot. That vote will most likely be held in the late fall.
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