What Happened at the Proposed Library Project Meeting?

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I’m delighted to report that there was a very nice turn-out for the Library Board Informational meeting about the proposed elevator project: about 40 people showed up, and on a very cold, Vermont Sunday afternoon in February, that’s really saying something.

The Library Board, and specifically board member Sally Caras, gave a very comprehensive Power Point presentation, for which they should definitely be commended.

The Argument in Favor

Sally Caras explaining details of the proposed architectural plans

To super-summarize, the message was this: the library’s needs are changing and evolving. The Strategic Plan completed last spring indicated residents want the library to be a social center of the town that provides space for meetings. The Matt Waite Room in the basement would be an ideal candidate for additional meeting space except for the fact that it is not handicapped accessible. Additionally, the handicapped access that the library does have is problematic: despite the fact that it meets ADA requirements, falling snow hinders access and there are complaints that the ramp is too steep.

The proposed elevator project solves both these concerns and, according to the library board, is likely to get funding of up to approximately one-half the estimated $295,000 price tag. All we have to do as citizens of Pawlet is vote to approve article one on March 3 and the process of securing grant money can begin.

The Argument… Against?

 Just for the record, I’m not against handicapped access to public spaces, nor am I against improving existing handicapped access. I don’t think I know anyone who is.

What I have a problem with is this particular proposal, and, in a nutshell, here is why:

  1. The Select Board has never voted to endorse this project.

At the meeting, the Library Board gave the impression that this project has been endorsed by the Select Board. It has not. They put it on the ballot instead of making a decision themselves.

  1. Where are the numbers?

Check out the library website for a PDF showing a breakdown of six different scenarios. (They show how a bond taken out by the town could affect taxpayers to the tune of between $165 and $765, total cost, over either 20 or 30 years.)

But here’s my question: where does the official estimate of $295,000 come from? Ralph Nimtz, the architect of the plans, was at the informational meeting and he said the numbers come from a “very reputable contractor in Rutland.” When pressed to give a general breakdown he was unable to give specifics of any kind, save that the lift itself would probably be about $30,000. When I asked if new front stairs were part of this estimate, Mr. Nimtz said they weren’t but could add anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 to the total cost.

I’ve never heard of a construction project that did not have an estimated breakdown of expenses. It’s important to have the numbers available to voters so we know what we’re voting on.

It’s also important to remember that the original library project, which converted the schoolhouse into the facility we use today, was not funded by taxpayer dollars. It was funded exclusively by grants and donations from individuals. Because the use of taxpayer money is being proposed here, it’s even more important to have those specifics.

A full house on hand for the informational meeting last Sunday

  1. Where are the experts?

I’ve been reading up on ADA compliance, (on the Department of the Interior website.) When dealing with a historic building, it’s important to understand that there is no one perfect way to provide accessibility.

For example: Did you know that the recommended ideal is to have the handicapped entrance be the same entrance the general public uses? I didn’t, but it makes sense.

So… why aren’t we proposing to put the new elevator on the front of the building?

Because, of course, sticking an elevator on the library front entrance would drastically alter the beautiful and historic facade built in 1912. By having handicapped access in the rear of the building we’re compromising. In adaptive reuse of historic buildings, compromises are a given. Beyond meeting the federal and state requirements for handicapped accessibility- which the Pawlet Library does- the question is how do we strike the right balance between best practices for accessibility and best practices for preservation. It’s a judgment call: what is reasonable?

For questions such as this it is common to hire an accessibility consultant. Also highly recommended is to incorporate a person with ability challenges into the planning process.

Did our Library Board do those things? In their very thorough presentation there was no mention made of either.

  1. The order of events is all wrong.

When I went to the library board meeting back in December of 2018 and first learned of this proposed project, they could have said it was a good solution to a problem of inadequate handicapped access.

But, that’s not what they said. What they said, more than once, was (and I’m paraphrasing here, but not much): We don’t necessarily love it, but the Select Board wants it. We have to play ball.

I’m not big on playing ball, especially when it concerns spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. I know how tight our town budget is causing many important maintenance projects and upgrades to get deferred year after year.

At the informational meeting, you’d never know the library board didn’t love this proposed project only a few short months ago. The way it was presented, it seemed like a very natural progression: the public asked for meeting space, and so we made a plan to accommodate more meeting space.

The only problem is that this timeline is backwards: the strategic plan came out in spring of 2019, whereas the architectural plans were created in 2018.

That’s why I’ve described this plan as a solution looking for a problem: the solution was drafted first. Who cares what order it happened in? Well, I think the order in which events occur can tell us a lot about the motivation behind them. I’d feel a lot better about this project as a voter if this process hadn’t put the cart approximately a mile and a half before the horse.

A Final Thought

By writing about this as honestly as I can, I have become a bit of a target; I’ve been accused of having ulterior motives.

None of these accusations are true. I have the greatest respect for accessibility concerns and I contributed to the fundraising effort to install an elevator in the Town Hall. Both my father and my mother-in-law are handicapped so it is never an issue far from my mind. I have great respect for the memory of Matt Waite, who I considered a friend.

Leaving the meeting on Sunday I had a lot of different thoughts. I thought if I had never heard of the proposal at all, and simply showed up at the polls to find it on the ballot, I would surely have voted in favor of it. Handicapped access? Support the library? Of course. It’s a no-brainer.

But because I know a little more, I’m concerned. Process is important. Transparency is important. Just like any household, our town only has so much to spend, and we can only take out so many loans. It just makes common sense to prioritize town improvements. Does this plan for more meeting space represent the number one thing our town will need over the next decade? Do we need this more than we need the roads to be fixed, during this year of endless mud season? Do we need this more than a new town garage?

Whatever the current Number One Priority turns out to be, then we need to identify a solution, in the process incorporating experts and detailed estimates from more than one source. Most of all we need our Select Board- our town leaders- to have an opinion on such matters. And then they should actually do something about it.