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.

Five Things Not Mentioned In the Library’s Mailer. Or Six.

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I’m happy to spread the word that the Pawlet Library Board is hosting an informational meeting about the $300,000 proposed elevator project, which will be on the town ballot for the March 3 vote.

A letter announcing this was sent this week to every Pawlet resident, but for those who may have missed it, the meeting is from 2-4 PM on Sunday February 9th. (I almost missed it myself. Strangely enough, my flyer got lost in the mail.)

Seen this yet?

As a long-time library supporter who spent years on the Pawlet Projects Committee organizing and fundraising for the library renovation, as well as a former Library Board member, I feel that the more information we have about a proposed construction project for the library, the better.

To that end, there are some things that should be noted that are not mentioned in the library’s mailing that I think are important to know. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Library Board is not unanimous in its support of this proposed project.

2. The Select Board is not in unanimous support of this project.

3. No one had ever complained about access to the lower level room.

4. The library is currently to code and ADA accessible.

5. Grants will not pay the full cost.

6. The roads of Pawlet are in extreme disrepair.

Let’s take these points one at a time:

1. The Library Board is not unanimous in its support of this proposed project. The letter sent out is signed by four out of five Library trustees. The one omitted is the one dissenting member. That member is Marty Kravitt, whose design for the original library renovation in 2002 was given as a donation to the town, and later won an award from the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

(Would you be surprised to know that his letter got inexplicably lost in the mail too?)

2. The Select Board is not in unanimous support of this project. In fact, over the last year only one Select Board member has expressed continuous support of the library elevator and that is Ed Cleveland.

Ed Cleveland, you’ll recall, is the Selectman who responded to the library board’s concern about falling snow on the handicapped access ramp by hiring an architect from Rutland and spending over $12,000 of the town’s money to date on plans. The resulting proposed solution would put in an elevator to the basement, as well as adding a bathroom and kitchenette. This is how we mitigate falling snow?

But if the Select Board doesn’t support it, why is it on the ballot? you might ask. With the exception of Ed Cleveland, none of the members of the Select Board seem prepared to fully support or oppose the project- by putting it on the ballot they are, it seems, acting in the time-honored tradition of “passing the buck.”

3. No one had ever complained about access to the lower level room. I know because I asked at the Select Board meeting of Dec. 18 2018 and it is recorded in the minutes of that meeting. It was only several months after that fact was pointed out that reportedly two letters of complaint materialized.

Excerpt from the Select Board meeting minutes of Dec. 18, 2018

4. The library is currently to code and ADA accessible. The problem is not the access ramp, the problem is falling snow on the access ramp. There are other improvements that have been proposed to address this problem: roof snow guards or a ramp roof. Either of these alternatives would be a fraction of the cost of the proposed elevator.

At the same time, nowhere in the proposed plan is any mention made of another very real problem: the library’s crumbling front steps. Again, re-pouring concrete steps would be a fraction of the cost of the elevator proposal, and it’s something which- unlike the elevator- everyone seems to agree is desperately needed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if we spent $300,000+ to put in an elevator in the building rear, only to have a lawsuit brought against the town from someone who fell down the front steps?

5. Grants will not pay the full cost. The library pamphlet makes much of the possibility of grants to fund a portion of the project costs, but it is important to note that grants are hard to get and none are guaranteed. In addition, most of these grants are matching grants, meaning the town will have to come up with a matching amount of money to whatever grant is awarded.

6. The roads of Pawlet are in extreme disrepair. Considering a project of this cost when residential roads lie impassible, residents are unable to get to work or school, and 65% percent of the highway budget is already gone for the fiscal year­— when the Select Board is literally arguing over pennies on the tax rate to buy road gravel— is unconscionable.

Lastly, I’d just like to mention a story I heard recently. I heard the other day about a person who said they would vote in favor of the library project because “we are Library People.” I too, am a Library Person. I took my children to the library for years to story-time, to Miss Dot’s Ballet classes, and to events like the holiday craft fair. I organized a birthday party to celebrate when the tenth anniversary of the library’s new home came around and I even baked the cake. I’ve donated time, money, books, toys and artwork to the library.

I am deeply saddened by the divisiveness of this issue, and I would like to dispel the notion that just because one opposes a particular proposal for the library, it means they don’t love the library. That’s like saying: if you don’t love the fact that our road crew is underfunded, then you must not love Pawlet. No- far from it. If you love something, and have an opinion about it, then I feel it is your obligation to get out there and fight for what you think is right, and makes sense.

This is why I argue we should Vote NO on Article 1 on March 3, because the library does need a solution, but this is not the right one.

 

 

 

Guess What? Library Elevator on the Ballot for March

Last night the Pawlet Select Board unanimously voted to put the $300,000 Library Elevator Project on the March 3rd ballot for town vote.

Folks, I love the library. Everyone in that room last night loves the library. I have yet to speak to a person who doesn’t love our local library. But this is a project I believe our town cannot afford.

The librarian explained that grant money is being pursued to help fund the project. But we all know that grant money is not assured, and virtually all of the examples she cited are matching grants.

What was most glaring to me about this meeting was what preceded the library discussion. Like at so many Select Board meetings, the head of our Town Road Crew, Keith Mason, gave a lengthy description of the state of our road budget, which is likely to be woefully short this year. He explained that we are not yet halfway through the fiscal year, yet already 65% through our annual allotted road crew funds. In fact there were folks in attendance expressly to complain that their road is virtually impassable. (I also spoke to people who wanted to attend the meeting last night but could not because their road is currently impassable.)

What shocks me is that our Road Crew is put in an impossible position of having to fix and maintain our roads during a difficult winter, without the sufficient resources to do so. We are talking here about maintaining the infrastructure of our town, without which our residents cannot get to work, cannot get to the grocery store, cannot function.

We are a town that can’t afford to keep all its roads open, yet we are proposing to spend over a quarter of a million dollars to create handicapped access to a building that already has ADA compliant handicapped access. To access a basement meeting room when we already have a lovely historic auditorium across the street in the Town Hall with a handicapped accessible elevator. 

If it were free? Maybe. But we all know it won’t be free.

———–

Here are the comments I read last night at the Pawlet Select Board Meeting:

As a longtime fan of the Pawlet Library and as a founding member of the Pawlet Projects Committee, which raised over $250,000 to convert the schoolhouse into the library’s new home back in 2002, as well as a former Library Board member, I would respectfully like to submit the following comment.

For the last year I’ve been attending Select Board meetings and Library Board meetings in hopes of having a complete understanding of the proposed Library elevator project, but in that time I have yet to hear a compelling argument for it.

The first argument I heard is that the Select Board wants this project, and so the library should go along with it in order to maintain a good relationship with the Select Board. But the Select Board seems far from united in their feelings about this proposal. Even if they were unanimous, this by itself would not justify spending $300,000 on a project, if that project does not make sense.

The second argument that I have heard is that it would resolve the problem that falling ice and snow presents for the existing handicapped access ramp. However, for a fraction of the cost of this proposed elevator, the town could add either snow guards or a ramp roof to resolve this.

The third argument I have heard is that the library has a new Strategic Plan that calls for providing places “for people to gather for social activities and community discussions.” But the strategic plan does not call for an elevator to the basement- it calls for meeting spaces. This is something we already have – not only in the library itself, but in other locations around town that may be used by the library and have been- the gym at the Mettawee Community School, the meeting room in the Pawlet Community Church, and the historic auditorium on the second floor of the Pawlet Town Hall. All of these spaces are handicapped accessible, and one of them, the Town Hall auditorium, is only steps away from the library itself.

The fourth argument I’ve heard, only recently- this morning- is that this is an effort to honor Matt Waite. If that is the case, I’m surprised this hasn’t come up in conversations about the project prior to now. I’m also very surprised that no one contacted Kellie Waite to let her know about this plan. Instead, I was the one to tell her about this project, when I called her to ask her what she thought of it.

We’ve already spent well over $12,000 on a misguided project. Are we really going to propose to the voters of Pawlet that we spend time, energy, and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a project that no one seems to love, and no one has asked for?— When there are so many other things Pawlet very much needs? We do need new library front steps. We do need a new town garage. As one Select Board member put it, this proposal seems like using a hand grenade to kill a housefly. It is a bad, heavy-handed solution to a nonexistent problem. It does not belong on the ballot.

Important Meeting Monday in Pawlet

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On this Monday, December 30th at 7 PM there will be a very important Select Board meeting at the Town Hall. In it, they are going to consider placing on the March Town ballot what is being called the Library Lift Expansion: a plan for a $300,000 elevator to a small basement room.

It is bad, expensive idea that no one had asked for and no one really likes.

After living in Pawlet for some time now, if I can say one thing about our community it is this: we are thoughtful and frugal. When it came time to raise money to turn the former three-room-schoolhouse into the new library years ago, the Pawlet Projects Committee did that fundraising with no financial assistance from the town. More recently, debates about the school merger’s effects on taxpayers were heated and prolonged- as befitted such an important issue.

I regularly attend town Select Board meetings and I think everyone can agree that they consider every issue with an eye to cost- cost to the taxpayers, cost to our community. At these meetings there is much talk about where the sand for this season’s roads will come from, and how to make sure folks in West Pawlet can afford their water treatment plant bills.

Clearly, there are many things Pawlet needs. For my part, if we are considering big projects, I’m curious why we aren’t talking more about a new town garage, something the town has reportedly been in desperate need of since I moved here two decades ago, and probably longer. If we are going to take a bond out to improve our town, I can’t think of any single project that would more positively affect the lives of its residents.

But instead, the Select Board are considering putting on the ballot an uncharacteristically wasteful proposal, an unnecessary addition to the library that happens to cost more, incidentally, than the entire building renovation did in 2001.

My commentary on this proposal has been published in VTDigger and the Manchester Journal as well as here on Pawletvermont.com, and interestingly, my article is the only place you’ll find any information about the “Library Lift Expansion.” Which is weird, don’t you think? The Library Board is proposing to spend $300,000 of taxpayer dollars, but they haven’t bothered to put the specifics on their website?

That just doesn’t sound like Pawlet to me. I hope you’ll join me at the Monday Select Board meeting at 7PM to oppose this wasteful boondoggle of a plan… the Elevator to Nowhere.

The Keep Pawlet Awesome Meeting

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On Wednesday night I went to the “Community Values Mapping Project” meeting, mainly to find out what the Hell it was. Normally, if you come up with a meeting name like that, I’d explain regretfully that I can’t possibly attend because I have to do something much more fun like de-mold my shower curtain.

But Harry Van Meter, the chair of the Pawlet Planning Commission kept telling everyone this was terribly important, and so I trusted him, without really knowing anything more. It turns out that the long, not-very-informative name of the meeting wasn’t Harry’s fault: the meeting was named and sponsored by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, as part of a statewide initiative.

But “Fish and Wildlife”? Strangely enough makes me think of fishing and hunting, neither of which I do. So what had this meeting to do with me?

Turns out a lot. Because this meeting really should have been called the “Keep Pawlet Awesome” meeting. Vermont Fish and Wildlife facilitator Monica Przyperhark explained that this meeting was all about identifying what aspects of our town we most loved, and communicating to both our town and the state that we’d like to see those aspects preserved.

It didn’t have to be about fishing or wildlife, although it could be. Ms. Pryperhark supplied large Pawlet maps and colorful markers with instructions to identify and label those things we most love about Pawlet.

Oh! Well that was easy! I circled our historic town center, and Haystack Mountain, and all of Route 30 with its beautiful rolling farm landscape, all aspects of our town that I can’t imagine it without. Others circled the Rail Trail, wildlife habitats and swimming holes. When all was said and done, we had marked our map up quite thoroughly.

The end result of this exercise will be to compile all the colorful lines and squiggles into a single report. This report then goes to the Pawlet Planning Commission, who will have the opportunity to incorporate it into the new Town Plan.

This isn’t just fluff. As Harry explained at the meeting, Vermont has impending clean energy initiatives that will require towns to incorporate renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. If we don’t identify the characteristics that make our town the wonderful place we want to live, we could- for example- wake up one morning and find our favorite view has been replaced by a solar array. I mean, solar power is great, but it isn’t always the prettiest thing to look at.

As our Planning Commission pulls together the road map for the future of our community, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department will be providing them with lots of information to help that process, including statistics about our area’s wildlife, ecosystems, and migration patterns. But they will also provide us with this compiled report which is intended to serve as a sort of mirror: What do we want? What do we care about? What is worth preserving? What makes Pawlet the awesome place it is?

So if you’re like me, you are probably curious as to what this report will actually say.  To find out, come to the Ms. Pryperhark’s presentation of it on Thursday, Nov. 14th at the Mettowee Community School. I THINK it is supposed to be at 7PM, but don’t quote me on that because it is possible I made that part up.

(When you arrive, you can tell them you’re there for the Keep Pawlet Awesome report. No one will know what you’re talking about, but I’m pretty sure it will feel much more exciting.)

Elevator to Nowhere

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I’ve lived in a small Vermont town for the last 22 years. In that time one thing has struck me time and again: how very, very, very important it is To Show Up. Unlike the large, anonymous suburb where I was raised, in a small town one person’s voice really can change the conversation, turn the tide, make a difference. I’ve seen it.

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Pawlet Projects Committee circa 2000 (That’s me with baby Greta in the front row middle)

 

The only catch is that it takes time. Years ago, our local Town Meeting used to take a whole day and involve voting on the floor. Today? Town Meeting is held at night, competing with dinner hour, homework and a million other commitments. Attendance is dwindling and consequently so is participation.

Inevitably, there are those who like it better that way. After all, when you have meetings no one shows up to, you can get a lot done, without all the messy, uncomfortable questions that public participation can bring.

I’ll give you a for instance. Last December I was asked to join the Library Board in my town of Pawlet, so I went to a meeting to find out more. I learned that they were contemplating an expansion to the library projected to cost the town $300,000, yet at the time no one on the Library Board seemed to be particularly in favor of it.

This struck me as odd. Something was up, I thought. I decided not to join the Library Board.

Instead, I spent the next few months showing up. I attended meetings and asked questions. I found out that it all started when the Pawlet Library asked the Select Board to fix a simple problem: in the winter months the handicapped access ramp was covered with falling ice and snow. Could anything be done about this? An architect was hired.

This is when the $300,000 project was introduced.

As you can imagine, the expensive plan doesn’t just fix the ramp’s ice and snow problem. Instead, it calls for the existing handicapped access ramp to be demolished, and a whole new entryway added. It calls for an elevator to the lower level and for a handicapped access bathroom to be added there.

Which would be great if there was this awesome series of rooms that was anxiously awaiting access down there, but unfortunately there isn’t. What is down there is what you would expect in the basement of a three-room schoolhouse built in 1912: a small basement room with tiny windows and two large support columns obstructing the center.

It is called the Matt Waite Room, because several years ago it was fixed up and turned into usable space in memory of one of our beloved residents. I’m not knocking this space, mind you- it would be perfect as a room for additional book stacks, or extra reading space, or perhaps more computer carrels… but all of these uses are redundant to the ones upstairs and would therefore not necessitate an expensive elevator.

The fact is that no one has ever formally complained about poor access to this room- I know, because I asked. That’s probably because there are many great meeting spaces in town that not only accommodate large groups and exhibitions, but already have handicapped access: the elementary school gym, the Congregational Church meeting room, and the Pawlet Town Hall auditorium. Which means that to date our town has spent over $12,500 on architectural plans that solve a nonexistent problem.

Why?

The reason repeatedly given to me was because the Select Board wanted it. By showing up, however, anyone could plainly see this was not the case. In fact, clear support was expressed by only one of the five Select Board members.

All of this is weird enough. But then I attended the most recent Library Board meeting. I gave them an actual transcript from a Select Board meeting, demonstrating the lack of consensus, so that they didn’t have to just take my word for it.

Now, I really didn’t expect them to say, “Hey thanks, Eve! You know, for doing all this work to try to clear up the confusion! ” But I also didn’t expect what did happen.

The Chair of the Library Board eyed me. She skeptically cited my attendance at many meetings, and how much time was involved. Then she said: “I have to ask. What is your motivation in all this?

As a matter of fact, I do have a motivation. I was one of the founding members of the Pawlet Projects Committee, which worked to save the abandoned schoolhouse in our historic town center, ultimately turning it into our beautiful community library. The first meeting was held in my living room. For years we worked tirelessly to fundraise and grant-write, and ultimately to move the library from a cramped room of the Town Hall to its expansive new site across the street.

But all that is assuming that simply being a concerned citizen is not enough, which it is. I understand that the Library Board wants me to go away and stop asking uncomfortable questions. But you know what? Whether this project- this elevator to nowhere- gets built or not, I have a right to show up. We all do. We all have a right to disagree, and we all have a right to ask questions. Even uncomfortable ones.

Especially uncomfortable ones.

In fact, as it turns out, that’s what public meetings are for.

So I encourage you to show up. Go to your next public meeting- no matter what it is­— Zoning Board, Planning Commission, Design Review Board— and See What’s Happening. Yes, it will take time, and yes there will be boredom- there’s always that. But you never know what you might find out, what questions you might ask that will make a difference. If you live in Pawlet show up and ask why we need a $300,000 boondoggle instead of a nice, serviceable ramp roof. If they look at you askance and ask you what your motivation is, you will know: you’re doing some good.

Town Meeting is SOON

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Get ready Pawlet people! Town Meeting approaches… scheduled for Monday, March 4th at the Mettawee Community School.

Please note that this meeting will not include the school budget. (The school budget meeting is on Feb 27th, 7 PM, Mettawee Community School.)

Curious what’s on the ballot this year? LOTS of stuff- it’s long this year, but nothing terribly crazy or controversial- it’s mostly requests from various local nonprofit organizations. Here it is:

Warning-for-Pawlet-Annual-Meeting-2019