On Tuesday, the Maplewood Township Committee “took the temperature” of the governing body on its desire to forge ahead with an ambitious plan to rebuild the town’s main library, in light of the recent passage of a state bond referendum that would match funds for library capital projects.
The committee is apparently feeling quite warm.
“This is an investment in the future,” said Township Committeeman Frank McGehee.
Several years in the making, the library plan is now one step closer to reality with the passing of the bond question in the November election, which allows for a one-to-one match of state funding for “shovel-ready” projects.
Mayor Vic DeLuca said that for the $22.5 million construction plan, 45% would come from the state, 45% from the township, and 10% from private sector fundraising.
Ben Cohen, president of the Maplewood Memorial Library foundation, said all the parts were lining up: the initial results of a feasibility study of how much the foundation could potentially raise were very encouraging (coming this weekend: the sold-out Ken Burns fundraiser); the building committee hired Sage & Coombe who put together a “spectacular” plan; the library has a “dynamic” director, Sarah Lester, who can help guide the project.
A renovated library would feature, among other things, new meeting spaces, an outdoor patio and an improved visual connection to Memorial Park, a cafe, a historic preservation room and much more.
“We are looking at a $20.5 million library project that will cost the taxpayers of Maplewood only $10 million,” said Cohen. “That’s like Black Friday on steroids.”
Addressing the TC, Cohen said: “You have an opportunity to do something historic for every resident of our community. A renovated and expanded library is an investment in the future of Maplewood which will last for generations… Maplewood needs this. Maplewood deserves this.”
He continued, “Do it once. Do it right. Do it now.”
Kate McCaffrey, president of the library board, said the bond referendum passing was a “game-changing situation.”
The cost to bond would be about $19 million, said DeLuca, who cautioned that it was yet unclear whether there would be a cap on how much the state would match. “A lot of this will depend on what the state is prepared to give us,” he said, although he emphasized that the governing body was very “optimistic.”
In fact, earlier that day, DeLuca said he spoke to Sen. Richard Codey and told him that bonding for the library project was Maplewood’s highest priority.
In the best-case scenario, with the state matching one-to-one, the township would bond $10 million over 20 years, which would translate to an annual tax payment of $94 per year for the average homeowner (or roughly $1,900 over two decades).
In the less optimistic case, if the state provides less of a match and the township has to bond for $15 million, the average homeowner would pay $129 annually (roughly $2,600 over 20 years).
Bottom line, said DeLuca: if the state matches funds at $10 million, “we think we can make this work. If the state gives us less, it’s going to be a harder decision.”
DeLuca asked rhetorically, “What impact are we making in the community by having a first class library…to the people who use it, to property values, the appeal to the community…?”
“We think this is a good deal.”
The library foundation, which would be aiming to raise between $2-3 million of private funds, has already received some financial commitments from individuals, corporations and non-profits.
McGehee said that this was not the first time the township had made a substantial investment in its library system; it had done so to build the Hilton Branch. (Cohen also pointed out that the Hilton Branch would remain a vital part of Maplewood’s library system).
He continued, “Public libraries are community lifelines” and noted that 15% of Maplewood residents don’t have access to the Internet. He reminded listeners of how the library was a “beacon” during Hurricane Sandy, when residents without power flocked to the library for warmth, wireless connection, and fellowship.
TC member-elect Dean Dafis, who will take his seat on the committee in January, spoke of the importance of public libraries to his childhood. “As the son of an immigrant….[my public library] was where I learned to read and write and speak English.”
Dafis concluded, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the right thing.”
The Township Committee will decide on the bonding issue later this winter.