Library’s expansion questioned

First came the easy part.

That was unveiling the images of a bigger, better Southold library, with a light-filled three-story atrium, a new and inviting Main Road entrance and close to double the space for quiet study, meetings and other uses.

Now comes the hard part – making a convincing case in the middle of a stubborn recession that voters should approve a $6 million construction bond.

The library’s trustees on Saturday got a taste of what they may face prior to the Oct. 16 vote during the second of four public information sessions on the expansion project at the library. With only three residents attending, the discussion focused on whether the community could afford the $7.25 million project. The consensus among them was no, it can’t.

The library’s recently launched three-year capital campaign aims to raise $1.25 million, which would lower the amount to be borrowed to $6 million. Library officials estimate that figure would add about $115 a year to the average property tax bill.

Through two large gifts, including $600,000 from the Albertson Family Trust, the library is already within $450,000 of its fundraising goal. Library board president David Fujita expressed confidence in exceeding the goal and said any additional funds raised will go to lower the debt.

But why spend so much money to enlarge a library when people can access books on a Kindle or other device, Peconic resident Carla Rosen asked. She described the expansion project as “grandiose” and “laughable.”

She suggested that the library invest the donated funds in improving the existing space.

Many people can’t afford a $300 Kindle, said Mr. Fujita. Board secretary Pauline Pharr added that with those digital books costing about $10 each, purchasing 30 books a year costs $300, more than most people pay in annual library property taxes.

“How we feel we can best serve the majority of the population is to provide free books and laptops that are free to use,” Mr. Fujita said. He added that the library must respect the needs of those who can’t afford a Kindle.

The board needs to be cognizant of ever-rising property taxes, said Rob DeVito of Southold. He said his school taxes have increased by $1,400 in the past seven years.

“There are too many questions about this,” he said. “This is an awful lot of money.”

Library board members have said that an unusual combination of financial factors, including extremely low interest rates and construction labor costs that are down substantially from just a few years ago, provide a favorable environment for proceeding with a project first discussed in 2008 but shelved when the “Great Recession” hit late that year.

In response to Peter Meeker’s question on whether the library has a “Plan B” should the “grand scheme” fail, Mr. Fujita answered no. The current design would cover the library’s needs for the next 20 to 25 years, the board president said, and a scaled-down version would not.

The residents and library administrators differed over the level of library usage. The residents said they had seen few people in the facility or at library programs, while the library maintained the number of people walking through the door has risen over the past several years.

“This is a library, but we also want it to be perceived as the heart of the community,” said Mr. Fujita.

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