CAPE ELIZABETH – The Cape Elizabeth Town Council reversed course Monday, voting 5-2 to seek resident approval for what could be a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion of Thomas Memorial Library.
Just two months ago, at a March 5 workshop, councilors split the opposite way on the issue, agreeing 4-3 that they could issue bonds on their own authority to pay for what has been pegged as an $8.5 million project.
Now, town and library officials will begin an effort to push the issue on the public, which, except for a universal aversion to the council issuing bonds without voter approval, has shown little interest in the project.
“We need to have a major [public] conversation, but nobody seems to care at all,” said library trustee Chairwoman RuthAnne Haley, at a steering committee meeting held last Thursday.
Monday’s vote ends discussion regarding how the issue would be decided. A ballot issue in November will ask voters if they agree in principle with the library project. If that passes, a bond would go on the ballot sometime next year, complete with a design proposal and a price tag.
State law requires a public referendum only for school bonds, councilors noted in March, and while Cape’s town charter does let voters veto capital projects on the municipal side, nothing compels the council to seek permission before initiating the process.
“I think we are elected to make responsible decisions,” said Councilor Jessica Sullivan, at the time. “If you send every tough decision to voters, it’s kind of a copout, I think.”
But on Monday, Sullivan and Councilor James Walsh altered course without necessarily changing position. Both held firm to their right – in fact, their “duty,” as Walsh put it after the meeting – to borrow on behalf of the town. However, both said public outcry over who gets to authorize the bonds has distracted the public from the larger issue –whether Cape needs a new library and, if so, what it should offer in terms of space and services.
“By deciding we were following our fiduciary responsibility as provided by the town charter, we got a lot of citizens engaged, but not engaged in looking at the project itself,” said Walsh. “I came to the conclusion that in order to get discussion going on the library and whether we are going to do anything with it, we had to take the process question off the table.”
“This has been so distracting,” agreed council Chairwoman Sara Lennon. “It’s all anyone’s talked about. Everyone was obsessing on the process and we want to get on the substance, i.e., what kind of library do we want?”
The problem, everyone seems to agree – marking why it was important not to get bogged down over whose hand is on the money sluice – is that the public has so far shown little interest in rebuilding Thomas Memorial Library.
“Our frustration is that nobody is paying any attention to this,” said Lennon.
Haley, Sullivan, Lennon and Library Director Jay Scherma have begun meeting to map out ways to get residents interested in the renovation project. So far, that’s a task easier said than done.
In fact, while condemnation of councilors for daring to bypass voters was nearly universal, based on emails addressed to the council, the volume was comparatively light. Lennon reports seeing “about 20 emails,” Walsh “eight or nine,” along with a couple of calls and the occasional mid-aisle conversation at the IGA.
“We got more response to the roosters,” said Walsh, referring to a recent attempt at noise control in town.
“It’s a complete mystery to me why no one is involved,” said Lennon. “I just hope they start to get engaged.”
The idea that Cape Elizabeth needs a new library has percolated since 2007, when Himmel & Wilson Library Consultants, of Milton, Wis., prepared a needs assessment for the town. That document listed 102 “deficiencies” in the building, which is actually an erector set of three old school houses, dating from 1849 to 1910, stuck together in 1985 with two “connector” buildings.
Scherma said the combined buildings are “about 6,000 square feet too small.” Beyond that, Himmel & Wilson cited floors that can’t handle the weight of books, aisles that do not meet disability standards, issues with moisture and humidity, heating and cooling, poor ventilation, antiquated plumbing and no facilities to run computer wiring.
“If this was a school building, it’d be shut down,” Haley has said.
In January, Pennsylvania-based Casaccio Architects submitted a concept sketch for a new library that retained the old Pond Cove School, which fronts the library on Scott Dyer Road, but wiped out the older buildings behind it in favor of a new, 23,000-square-foot, two-story structure with dormers designed to evoke a Colonial-era feel.
That proposal replaced an earlier version submitted last July that envisioned a larger, all-new, single-story library and community center. As late as the second draft, the unofficial plan cited by Scherma and Town Manager Michael McGovern was to seek voter approval for borrowing this June, with construction to begin as early as September.
However, at about the same time the revised concept plan was submitted, Portland consulting firm Demont Associates said a public vote should be delayed until November. Hired for $30,000 last fall to assess fundraising potential, Demont conducted a non-scientific survey of 57 local residents, including library trustees, foundation board members, town officials, a construction study oversight committee and people identified as likely donors. Even with a study group presumably stacked in favor of rebuilding the library, Demont noted that while 81 percent of those polled said they’d give something, a mere 26 percent deemed the library a “priority” for their philanthropic efforts. The bottom line, said company founder Bob Demont, is that while the means exist in Cape to raise as much as $2 million in private donations toward the project, the will to do so is weak.
Although it was just weeks later that the council ended talk of a bond referendum in favor of unilateral action, Sullivan says that decision was not based on any fear extrapolated from the Demont survey that voters might reject borrowing as much as $7 million for the project – a figure that, with interest, could ultimately cost taxpayers more than $10 million, according to town financial adviser Joe Cuetara.
“Four of us just kind of came up with the thought independently,” said Sullivan. “We just happened to say, ‘I don’t know what we’re talking about a referendum for. We should just go ahead and vote. That’s our job.’”
Now, with a public referendum back on the table, the council sees its job as facilitating debate on the proposed library project, while trustees focus on “education.”
A “public engagement” meeting has been set for May 31, at which library officials hope to hear what residents want from their library. The Casaccio plan, Lennon stressed, is one idea only. The final product can take whatever form the public demands.
“I think there’s a sense out there that this plan is final, but that’s not the case at all,” she said.
Following the May 31 meeting, library trustees plan five months of “extensive outreach” in hope of generating interest in the library renovation that has, to date, been lacking. The culmination will be the referendum approved by councilors Monday, which, McGovern said, will likely take the form of a straw poll at the general election this fall. If voters support in principle rebuilding the library, a building committee will be formed, leading to detailed plans and a formal bond vote sometime in 2013.
On June 4, councilors will hold a workshop to hammer out wording of the November referendum question. At that time, they also will debate the possibility of amending the town charter to add a so-called “referendum trigger,” to put to bed the larger questions of when the council must put an issue out to voters.
As for the library, Lennon and her fellow councilors report some residents have claimed Cape does not need a larger one in the digital age. However, Scherma points out that total circulation is up 10.4 percent since 2007, despite a 2010 increase in lending periods from two to three weeks, which theoretically should have slowed the pace.
According to Haley, cities and towns in the region with newly renovated public libraries – some of which Cape councilors plan to tour in June – have seen an additional spike in usage.
“The data has showed us that in every case, the traffic is up, programming is up, the circulation is up, but nobody knows about that,” she said. “They just care about how much it’s going to cost.”