Belmont: 4 reasons to vote “YES” on Question 5

Early voting is already underway here in Belmont and – if 2020 and 2021 are any indication – a majority of Belmont voters will have cast ballots before election day. So, for some of you, this blog post may already be too late. But if you haven’t yet cast a ballot, and still need to make up your mind on Question 5, which asks voters to approve funding for construction of a new library building, here are four reasons to vote “YES.”

Voting YES on 5 is the fiscally responsible thing to do

As a community, Belmont can’t avoid spending money to operate. Simply not investing in roads, public buildings and town services isn’t an option. What voters should expect and demand of our town government is that we spend our money in a fiscally responsible manner. That means investing smartly and in ways that keep our operating costs manageable over the long term, while not exposing taxpayers to the risk of foreseeable harms.

Needless to say: doing the fiscally responsible thing does not always or automatically mean “spending less money” at each juncture, as Library opponents argue. Think about it like this: you might own a 20 year old vehicle that’s served you well, but that has a blown head gasket, bad brakes and transmission and a hole in the undercarriage. Fixing all that might cost you $20,000, while a brand new car might cost you $25,000. Is pouring $20k into your 20 year old car the fiscally responsible choice, just because the up front cost is lower? Probably not. That’s because your aging car has a finite lifespan and other systems that are also likely to fail. While you will pay less up front to fix the problems, you will incur higher costs in the future than if you pay a bit more for the new car, which has much lower maintenance costs and a longer lifespan.

The same is true of the Library. Pouring money into a failing facility might seem fiscally prudent, but only if you don’t look at what taxpayers will “get” for their money – a facility that is 25% smaller, ill suited to the needs of the community and with lurking problems (for example, with the foundation) that could easily blow up in the months and years ahead. Building a new library won’t just give us a far superior facility – it will also cost us less over the mid- to long term than trying to make do.

That’s why voting YES on Question 5 to fund construction of a new library is the fiscally responsible choice, even though in the immediate term it will cost the town slightly more than trying to repair the long list of failing systems and ADA compliance issues with the existing building.

Belmont has no ‘Plan B’ for the library

The most persuasive argument for moving ahead with funding for a new library building is the absence of other, viable options. As I pointed out in this blog post: our town really has no contingency plan should funding for a new building fall through. We’ve kicked this can down the road for 20 years and, frankly, we’re at the end of the road. Our town’s meager cash reserves are already spoken for: used to fill in the gaping structural deficit in our operating budget and hold off having to ask taxpayers for a Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund town operations.

While we’re floating without a “Plan B,” the likelihood that we’ll need a “Plan B” is quite high. The current library building has multiple, aged systems any one of which could fail at any point in the near future and need emergency replacement – the HVAC, the roof, the brittle electrical system. The Town doesn’t have the money for those repairs and even if it did, doing them would trigger federal compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which will necessitate millions more in ADA improvements that we don’t have money for. So “Plan A” it is – and Plan A is “Vote yes on Question 5” and let’s get going with our new library!

A community room at the new Belmont Public Library.
New community rooms and common spaces are just one, awesome feature of the new library.

The new library will make our community stronger

You should vote YES on Question 5 because the new library will be awesome and because investing in the “commons” is what will keep our community strong and healthy.

As this great Op-Ed by Mary Lewis notes: the new library will be a building block for our community here in Belmont. As Mary notes, despite our relatively small stature, our library use ranks in the top ten of towns and cities for highest circulation per opening hour across the Commonwealth – alongside much larger communities like Boston, Cambridge and Quincy. It is also a social center for our town.

The new plan for the library acknowledges this proud history, while also building for the future. Some people tend to think of libraries in terms of their historical purpose (book lending). But modern libraries are much more. They provide access to the Internet for those who don’t have it at home. They provide access to online resources (jobs and research databases) for professionals. Libraries provide adult learning opportunities and cooling centers during summer heat waves. They provide quiet space for students to study and public spaces for residents to meet, catch up and for public meetings.

And, as Mary points out, the new library will finally be a place where Belmontonians who need wheelchairs can finally access all parts of the facility- a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed more than 30 years ago and with which our library is not compliant.

It will cost just $19 a month per household.

Opponents to the Library like to focus on the big price tag – the total project cost -as a way to scare voters. That’s misleading. The reality, for Belmont taxpayers, is that the construction cost of the facility – around $39 million, or $34 million after we spend down the $5 million in private funds raised – will be spread out in debt payments over 30 years and across the more than 9,800 taxpaying households in town. The average cost, for a home appraised at $1 million, is $19.30 a month in additional taxes per taxpaying household (not per individual).

Don’t get me wrong: I would prefer it if the federal government and state government was paying for this building. We have a $6.25 trillion federal budget. Why Washington D.C. can’t offer a helping hand to towns, like Belmont, that need new schools and libraries is beyond me. Uncle Sam used to provide funds directly for that kind of infrastructure. No longer. Now the federal government seems more interested in giving tax breaks to billionaire hedge fund owners and multi-billion dollar corporations than investing in the public commons. Small towns like Belmont and ordinary working folks pay the price for those backward “let them eat cake” federal policies.

That said: I’m always amazed at the fierce, virulent resistance (by some) to public investment of any kind, even when the benefits to the community are so evident and the real cost to taxpayers is relatively low.

Here in Belmont, for those households who are struggling financially, live on a fixed income and/or don’t have $19 a month to spare, the Town offers both tax exemptions and abatements. If this is you, please visit the Town’s website to learn more and apply.

For everyone else (that is: households with the means to pay, but that would prefer not to): as you rail against the onerous burden of an extra $19 a month in property taxes, tell me with a straight face that – in the last month- an package containing some impulse buy from someone in your house didn’t land on your doorstep costing more than $19. Tell me you didn’t grab a coffee, pizza or a beer with a friend where the tab was more than $20.

Or, tell me you drive by the Underwood Pool in August, see it filled with laughing children and adults relaxing in the sun, and can only think about the $12 in extra property tax (or whatever the per household cost was) you are paying for the next few years to make that pool possible.

As history tells us (the Chenery, Wellington, Senior Center, the Underwood): we agonize over the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ and the cost. But, in the end, the infrastructure gets built. Once it is built, it gets used -raising our standard of living and making our community stronger. In very short order, the price tag and the incremental increase in property tax payments is forgotten.

So there you have it! Four, good reasons to vote YES on Question 5. There are many more. The thread that connects all of them is that a new Library is the right choice for Belmont, and will be an important investment in our community, our kids, seniors and professionals. I hope you’ll join me in voting YES on Question 5!