MERIDEN – While some city officials are optimistic the $7.8 million library renovation approved Monday will benefit the community for years to come, library leaders are disappointed the council did not approve a higher-priced renovation and expansion of the 46-year-old building.
“I don't think that this benefits the community,” Library Board of Trustees President Joan Edgerly said. “Rearranging a space doesn't provide anything extra. One area closes and another area gains but overall it doesn't help. So I’m very disappointed.”
The project will fully renovate the library, which has not been renovated since it opened in 1973, but not expand the building’s footprint, something library officials argued was needed to meet the needs of the community. Meriden’s 45,000-square-foot library is about 11,000 square feet smaller than what is recommended by the State Library based on the city’s size and demographics.
After much debate, the council chose the $7.8 million renovation over the $9.3 million option that would have renovated and expanded the library by 9,000 square feet. The options were two of three presented by an architectural firm earlier this year, along with a $6.3 million partial renovation with no expansion.
The addition would have been constructed on 22 Catlin St., a vacant, foreclosed residential property. The Library Board offered to donate $200,000 for the purchase and demolition of the house, lowering the difference between the two options to $1.3 million.
While the approved renovation is expected to upgrade and expand the children’s section, teen area, and multipurpose space, the expansion would have allowed for even more room in those areas and created a large meeting space available after library hours, said Carmine Trotta, chairman the Library Building Review Committee.
The council formed the review committee in 2016 to assess the needs of the library, solicit renovation options and recommend a plan. The review committee voted last month in support of the $9.3 million expansion because they felt it gave the city the best value.
“We would have had so, so much more,” Trotta said.
Want or need?
Council Minority Leader Dan Brunet, who opposed the $9.3 million project, said he felt expansion wasn’t necessary and would lead to increased overhead and staffing costs. Brunet contended that the $7.8 million project will meet most of the city’s goals – including bathroom upgrades, larger children’s and teen sections, and more multi-purpose space – and said he considered the added benefits of an expansion more of a “want” than a “need.”
“We were firmly not in favor of increasing the total footprint,” Brunet said. “When you start expanding, then they want to increase programming and overhead costs and long term it’s not in the best interest of the city.”
While seven of the 10 councilors at Monday’s meeting, along with Mayor Kevin Scarpati, supported the expansion option, the council needed eight votes to pass either the $7.8 million or $9.3 million project.
“We lost by one vote, and that’s pretty sad,” Edgerly said.
Normally capital projects would need a simple majority vote, but because either project would have put the city above its annual bonding cap of $3.4 million for 2019-20, the City Charter requires eight votes. The bonding cap is set at 50 percent of what the city paid down in principal the prior year, Finance Director Michael Lupkas said.
“I’m just very disappointed, to say the least,” Trotta said. “I thought we had the very, very best possible option and it came one vote short.”
Going into Monday’s meeting, five of the 10 councilors present were in favor of expansion — Democrats David Lowell, Brian Daniels, Miguel Castro, Michael Cardona and Cathy Battista — and five were against it — We the People councilors Walter Shamock, Joseph Carabetta III, Brunet, a Republican, and Democrats Sonya Jelks and Bruce Fontanella.
Jelks and Fontanella each changed their mind during the meeting, bringing the total votes in favor to seven. Jelks initially objected to the expansion’s $9.3 million price tag but was swayed after hearing outside donations would be sought to lessen the cost to taxpayers. Fontanella said that after listening to fellow councilors he concluded that spending an additional $1.5 million made sense.
Lowell, the council’s majority leader, said council Democrats were not able to reach a consensus going into Monday’s meeting.
“As a result of indecision on the part of members of our caucus, we went into that meeting with indecisive natures of votes, with people leading other people astray right from our own caucus. (Which is) highly inappropriate,” Lowell said at a Democratic Town Committee meeting this week.
Despite pleading from Democrats and Scarpati, Brunet, Shamock and Carabetta held firm. Democrats, knowing they didn’t have the votes to pass the expansion, eventually agreed to approve the lesser-priced option because they felt it was better than doing nothing. Had a vote for the expansion failed, Lowell said, the council couldn’t have then taken a separate vote on a different option.
“I offered an amendment to go to the second choice,” Lowell said at the Town Committee meeting. “I made it crystal clear that that was not my choice, however, in order to salvage some level of dignity and respect for the work that the (Library Building Review Committee) did and the recommendation they made, we had to come away with something.”
The two councilors who didn’t attend Monday’s meeting — Democrat Larue Graham and We the People councilor Bob Williams — also opposed the expansion.
Graham wasn’t able to attend due to a family medical emergency but provided a statement explaining his position, which Lowell read at the meeting. In the statement, Graham said he didn’t support either the $7.8 million or $9.3 million options.
“We are just a few years into paying for the high schools, and I don’t feel we can afford any renovations at this time,” Graham’s statement read. “While I appreciate the hard work and time the library committee committed to this project, I feel that with the inherent increases in next year’s budget, we should be looking for areas to reduce the burden on the taxpayers and not add to it.”
Lowell and Daniels made clear that while the option they favored did not pass, the approved project will address the immediate needs of the aging building.
“I want the public to understand that whatever option gets selected, the city of Meriden is far better off than it would be if we did nothing,” Daniels said before the vote Monday, “because there are just millions of dollars of repair that have to get done. So either way, it is a win for the city. Nobody in the public should say that we lost.”
But Edgerly had a bleaker outlook following the meeting.
“We’re not adding anything, so all we’re doing is just rearranging, there won't be any additional space. It’ll just be the existing space, only used differently,” said Edgerly, vice-chair of the city’s Library Building Review Committee.
Edgerly contends that the roughly $1.3 million difference between the two options is “not that significant” and could have been made up through donations. The average city property owner is expected to pay an additional $22 in taxes next year as a result of the $7.8 million renovation, $4 less than the additional $26 the expansion would have cost.
Prior to the council vote, the library and the Friends of the Library nonprofit planned to raise money for the expansion. Now, Edgerly said, there will be less enthusiasm for fundraising.
“People are very disappointed, primarily because the additional amount of money to get what we wanted was relatively small,” she said.
Residents, predominantly senior citizens, spoke passionately in favor of the $9.3 million option at recent public meetings because they felt it would be an appropriate investment in one of the city’s greatest resources. During public comment at Monday’s meeting, Laura Van Wormer, an accomplished author who strongly supported the expansion, said that she wore all black clothes to prepare for her own funeral because “I might want to kill myself tonight.”
‘Fight’s not over’
Lowell and other Democrats are exploring ways to still move the library expansion forward, either through private donations or other funds. Members of Meriden’s state delegation have or plan to introduce bills seeking $1 million of state funding for the project on top of a $1 million state grant the city expects to receive later this year.
“The fight’s not over, and I commit to you that we will, in the council, take forward whatever resolution … to go after the additional money before a shovel goes into the ground,” Lowell told the Town Committee. “And I would ask my colleagues for their unwavering support in the process. No gamesmanship, no behind the scenes nonsense. That’s got to end.”
The city intends to request that the project architect prepare designs that allow for expansion in the event that the project is revived.
Brunet and members of his caucus said they were especially hesitant to approve the expansion given other capital projects the council has approved in the last year, including new tracks and turf fields at both high schools, new hangars at Meriden Markham Airport, and a new banquet hall at Hunter Memorial Golf Course. Those projects, in part, put the council up against its annual bonding cap, requiring eight votes for approval of library upgrades.
Edgerly believes the council sent the wrong message that the library isn’t as important as the other projects.
“The library serves everyone. Anyone who wants to use it can use it. Not very many people in this town have airplanes that I know of,” she said.
Lowell said comparing the library expansion to the other projects is not accurate because the airport hangars and banquet hall are expected to eventually pay for themselves through rent payments the city will receive from pilots storing their planes and the restaurant that operates the banquet hall. In the case of the track and field upgrades, Lowell said the council took advantage of money left over from the high school renovations to pay for a portion of those projects.