Ballots have been sent out, which means that Belmont voters are already weighing in on some critical questions affecting our Town. At the top of that list: whether to fund reconstruction of our library, which is housed in a building that is plagued by major structural problems and at the end of its useful life.
The Vote YES for the Library campaign has a couple of key points. One is that “repairing” the current library is a bad option. It will cost about the same as constructing a new facility, but leave us with a building that is 25% smaller than the current building and with lurking issues (with the foundation, for example) that could blow up and cost us millions more in the future.
The other point the campaign makes is that failing to approve construction of a new library building isn’t a vote for the status quo, but could easily lead to the closing of the library altogether and, with that, loss of Belmont’s access to the broader Minuteman Library Network we are a part of.
Opponents of the new library argue that this is scare mongering. It’s not. In fact, my investigation of this question suggests that scenarios in which Belmont is forced to close its library in the near future are not only possible but likely, absent construction of a new facility. As I see it: here’s how we lose our library, and access to other towns’ libraries. This is a long post. If you don’t want to read through it, you can click on the links below to jump ahead:
Step 1: Belmont votes “No” instead of “YES” on Question 5 on November 8
By failing to pass Question 5, the Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion funding construction of the new Library building, voters will essentially be turning a deaf ear to the Library Board of Trustees, Library staff and outside experts who have warned, for years, that the current facility faces looming crises: a roof, electrical system, heating and HVAC that are old and failing and in need of immediate replacement; a porous foundation; the lack of a fire suppression system; and a wide range of other faults.
Voting “No” is kicking the can down the road, metaphorically, where that “road” in question is only about 3 feet long. And it sets up the next step on the path to us losing our Library, namely:
Step 2: A major system fails at the Belmont Public Library
When expert after expert tells you that something is going to fail – they just can’t tell you exactly when – don’t be surprised when it finally fails. That’s the position Belmont will find itself in when a major system breaks down for good at the Belmont Public Library. The failure could take a number of forms, but it will set in motion a cascade of events that will result in our Town closing the library – possibly for good.
While we don’t know exactly which system could set off this cascade, here are some likely candidates:
- The aging HVAC system finally dies. This sounds like a big nothing. Just replace it, right? But because the Library building is so brittle, even a seemingly simple problem like this quickly balloons. As the YES campaign points out, in order to fix the air conditioning, you need to replace the units on the roof and in the eaves. In order to do that, you must replace the old, leaking roof. And the ductwork. And the crumbling eaves. And you have to replace the electrical infrastructure that cannot support the additional demand. And so on. That bill alone will be tens of millions of dollars. It will also trigger other improvements mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- The ancient electrical system causes a fire. The electrical system at BPL is nearing 60 years old, is brittle and prone to failure and was not designed to support modern equipment (computers, heating and cooling systems, etc.). There have been incidents of electrical sparking in the past and surge protectors and extension cords now snake across the library floors to prevent further sparking. With such an overtaxed and aged electrical system, however, a spark during off hours that leads to a devastating fire can’t be ruled out.
- The roof fails. Roof leaks are well documented at the Library and the roof on the existing building needs to be replaced. As any homeowner knows: you can always patch roof leaks, but you can’t patch forever. And patching leaves you open to future, unexpected leaks (always at the worst time) and the possibility of costly water damage inside the building. However, replacing the roof (which is the proper thing to do) will also require that the HVAC system (which resides on the roof) also be replaced and set in motion other improvements that result in a bill that is the equivalent of the price tag of the new building. (See the discussion of the HVAC system above.) Here again: what seems like a simple fix will trigger a cascade of other needed fixes to support and compel Belmont to pour millions of dollars into the Library to complete both needed- and legally mandated (ADA) improvements – money the Town does not have. The price tag of those improvements is within spitting distance of the price tag of a new building.
If any one of these failures happens we move on to Step 3…
Step 3: On the hook for millions in repairs and ADA compliance, Belmont closes the Library to “figure out its next move.”
I think Belmont residents are unaware of the degree to which our Town government is walking on a fiscal tightrope without a net. Years – decades- of failed efforts to increase the town’s operating budget have led to “level service” (aka “non-inflation adjusted”) budgeting. As inflation does its work, we are left with less and less money to run the town. To make ends meet, we’ve cut deeply into services and failed to keep up with maintenance of our buildings. We have also failed to build a “rainy day” fund to insulate our community from the fallout of adverse events.
The failure of a major system at the Library will lay bare our Town leadership’s “wing and a prayer” approach for all to see. First of all, the Town will have to shut the Library immediately, as the building will be unsafe to occupy. There is no backup facility that we will be able to use in the meantime. The few spare Town buildings that might have been able to fill a temporary need – like the former Belmont Electric building on Concord Ave – are, themselves, decrepit and uninhabitable.
Belmont’s leadership will also have to acknowledge that the Town does not have the millions of dollars in free cash to pay for repairs. We simply don’t have that kind of money, and what free cash we have is already being tapped to fill in our structural operating budget deficit.
What’s more: the scope of the repairs needed to simply re-open the building will force Belmont to make the Library comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. That federal law stipulates that alterations to a building that affect the primary function of the building need to be made so that the building is accessible to people with disabilities, which our current building is not. In the case of the Library, that will necessitate installation of a new elevator and changes to the layout and floor plan that will result in an “improved” building with 25% less usable space. Figuring out what is needed to meet ADA compliance will also add time and cost to the repair project, pushing any re-opening off further into the future. And, in the end, the bill for repairs and ADA compliance is estimated at close to $30 million – about the price we’ll pay for a brand new, modern library that is far bigger and has none of these problems.
When (not “if”) Step 2 comes to pass, don’t expect anyone in Town government to say we should just get rid of the Library. That would be political suicide. What the Select Board will say is that we need to ’temporarily close’ the Library while the Town figures out its “next move.” That “next move” will probably be to try to get back to where we are right now: with a ballot measure put before voters to raise money to build a new Library. But it will take months – if not years – before that happens. And, depending on the makeup of the Town’s political leadership, there may not be an appetite to put a debt exclusion before voters at all.
In the meantime, the Library stays closed. Our library staff leave and move on to work for other communities and Town soon “moves on” in a greatly diminished capacity and without a public Library – a huge loss to Belmont and a black eye to one of the State’s most educated and affluent communities.
True, for a short while, residents may be able to travel to neighboring Towns like Watertown, Cambridge and Lexington that have modern, operating libraries and borrow books via Belmont’s membership in the Minuteman Library Network. But, as we’ll see, that option will be short lived because…
Step 4: Belmont loses our State MBLC library certification
Once we close our library, we’ll lose our state certification from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC). This will happen fairly quickly after we shutter our library to “figure out our next move.” No library – no state library certification. It’s that simple. And, with that, we’ll also lose access to the State Aid to Public Libraries program.
Losing our MBLC certification will also open the door to other towns cutting off access to Belmont residents, or charging Belmont residents fees for use of their public libraries as spelled out on the MBLC website.
Which brings us to the next (final) step…
Step 5: Other town libraries deny Belmont residents access to their collections, or charge them fees
I’ve read opponents of Question 5 (to fund the construction of a new Library) argue that even if it closed, Belmont residents could simply use neighboring communities’ libraries. This will almost certainly not happen. Instead, the consequence of us closing our library will almost certainly be losing access to other libraries and the Minuteman Library Network as well.
As the MBLC website makes clear, once a town no longer has a MBLC certified library and are not participating in the State Aid to Public Libraries program, other towns are free to deny access to that town’s residents or charge them fees for privileges at their library. This decision only requires a vote of the Board of Library Trustees in each town, and those Boards will be highly motivated to send a message, so Belmont residents could start losing access to other libraries within days or weeks of Belmont’s library closing.
That goes, also, for the towns participating in the Minuteman Library Network, where the functioning of the network hinges on the participation of each community. Residents of member towns benefit from access to a much larger collection than their lone, local library. However, once a town closes its library (which, by the way, has never happened in the history of the Minuteman Network), the relationship is no longer reciprocal. Other towns are now, effectively subsidizing the library use of the member town without a functioning library. Think about it: if that is allowed to stand, why would other towns not also decide to defund their libraries and simply refer library users to other towns to serve their needs? You get the picture, right?
To prevent that “race to the bottom,” the other towns and other MMLN members will move quickly to punish Belmont by denying borrowing privileges to Belmont residents or imposing fees on them to borrow, thereby reinforcing for member towns the benefits of continuing to fund and operate their libraries. The price for dropping out will be high. (See also: BREXIT.)
So there you have it – five, simple steps that are likely and that result in our Town being left not only without a local public library, but shut out of access to public libraries all together. The “fix” is easy: vote YES on Question 5 come November 8!