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Question 1 in Falmouth divides community

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Question 1 in Falmouth divides community

FALMOUTH — Question 1 on the June 14 ballot is nothing if not controversial.

But if there's one thing the opposing sides in the debate over a proposed town center can agree on, it's that there is a lot of misinformation floating around town.

During more than an hour of testimony at last week's Town Council meeting, speakers attempted to clarify the facts.

"There is no pool," Yes on 1 co-Chairwoman Marna Miller said.

While a town swimming pool has been discussed in the past, the current proposal does not include a pool.

The proposal does include turning the Motz building and Mason gymnasium into a community center, converting the Lunt School into a new Falmouth Memorial Library and renovating the Plummer building to make it available for lease to a private organization or business.

An earlier proposal to move the Town Hall to the Lunt Road property has been abandoned.

The $5.65 million project would be financed by the sale of existing property, including the current library building at 5 Lunt Road, land behind the two school buildings, and the recent sale of the Pleasant Hill Fire Station.

The fire station sold for $127,000, which is $23,000 less than projected in the town center proposal. However, a $600,000 variance has been built into the plan to protect the project if property sells for less than anticipated.

Income from the sale of the library is expected to be $1.25 million, and sale of the land is expected to generate $2 million.

The rest of the funding would come from $1.25 million in fundraising required of the library board of trustees and $1.5 million from the town's undesignated fund balance – a "rainy day fund" that accumulates from property taxes and other income that is not spent, and can be used for capital projects.

If all the funding is not in place by Dec. 31, 2015, the Town Council can kill the project.

The town has a little more than $9 million in its undesignated fund balance. It is required to keep 16.7 percent of expenditures in that fund, which last year was just over $6 million.

The town center project is being called "net zero" because the anticipated income is equal to the projected costs. Under the referendum, no new taxes can be raised to pay for the project.

However, some opponents say operating costs will rise when the town has more space for programs, thus increasing future taxes.

"The Town Council explored the impact of all associated costs over 20 years," Miller said. "They looked at everything, from staff increases ... to utilities and maintenance."

She said that as part of the plan, additional operating costs will be offset after five years by tax revenue generated by properties that are put back on the tax rolls.

"Projections of costs and revenues indicate that the entire project – including operating costs – will ultimately be cost-neutral," she said.

Others question the wisdom of spending money to restore buildings when the town could be focusing on other priorities.

"We're spending $5.6 million when the roads are in horrible shape. If we've got some extra money, let's get some roads fixed this summer, rather than get the library moved," said Dave Libby, a former town councilor and a founding member of the Falmouth Citizens for Sound Choices, which opposes Question 1.

The opponents question the town's ability to sell its property for as much as it has proposed, and the necessity of moving the library at a time when technology is calling into question the longevity of printed books.

Library debate

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Question 1 is the plan to move Falmouth Memorial Library from its current, 10,700-square-foot building on Lunt Road to the 20,000-square-foot Lunt School on the west side of Interstate 295.

Two library consultants hired in the past 10 years have agreed that the library needs more space to meet its current demand for services. However, the most recent consultant, Nolan Lushington, whose report was issued in October 2010, refused to project space needs out more than five years, citing the tenuous future of libraries in a digital world. He recommended an increase of 3,000 square feet to meet the library's existing needs.

However, when pressed by town councilors, Lushington estimated the library would need more than 5,000 additional square feet over the next 20 years.

Changing the school building to a library is projected to cost $3 million and is by far the most expensive aspect of the project.

Library trustees voted unanimously earlier this year to move from the current space, although not necessarily to the Lunt building.

But some say the trustees should investigate ways to keep the library where it is.

Council Chairman Tony Payne suggested the property near Family Ice and the current library, on the east side of I-295 and close to Route 1, is already a town center.

"We already have invested in sidewalks, landscaping and other infrastructure that surrounds the library," Payne said in a recent e-mail to constituents. "We have encouraged shops, restaurants and entertainment to operate within our town center. We have baseball fields, tennis courts and a playground on one side and an ice arena and fitness facility on the other. All are within walking distance of one another as well as the new Tidewater neighborhood and conservation project."

Others agree that moving the library farther from Route 1 does not make sense.

"Why would we even think about moving away from Route 1?" Libby said. "I would rather see things move closer to Route 1. If you're going to have this town center, why not find a new home along Route 1?"

However, the prospect of purchasing commercial property on Route 1 is not appealing to everyone.

"If Falmouth had a lot more money and wanted to buy prime commercial land on Route 1, some might be able to argue that would be a better location for a community center and a library," Miller said. "But even if we wanted to spend that kind of money ... that would mean taking prime, commercial property off the tax rolls."

While the library is an independently incorporated organization run by a 12-member board, it receives a little more than 75 percent of its operating budget from the town. The town also co-owns the library building.

The other option is to expand the library building on its current site. While a previous report did include a small expansion for a second floor on the oldest part of the building for $800,000, more recent expansions put the costs closer to $4 million.

Proposed on-site expansions would include the purchase of two properties. The property on Lunt Road is owned by a family willing to sell; the other property, on Depot Road, is owned by William Hale, who library President Chantal Walker said is unwilling to sell.

Purchase and demolition of only the neighboring Lunt Road property would cost an estimated $400,000 and would allow the library to expand, but would limit its parking spaces and require a variance from the town so patrons could park on the street.

Walker said she and seven other members of the board voted to support Question 1. Despite their prior support for a move in general, two members voted against supporting the referendum in particular and one abstained.

Board member Julie Rabinowitz said she could not support the referendum because the town is still negotiating a memo of understanding that dictates the legal agreement between the library and the town.

"Without having the MOU finalized, as a trustee, I don't know what the referendum legally binds us to," Rabinowitz said.

Susan Tartre, also a trustee, said she does not back the referendum because it is not solid enough.

"I love the library. I want something good to happen with it," Tartre said. "But I don't want to tie us up for years. The referendum is just really weak. Maybe we are supposed to go to Lunt, but I don't think this is the way we're supposed to get there."

She said she is worried the library board will spend its resources and time fundraising for a project that will die when other aspects of the project, such as sale of some the town-owned school property to the OceanView community, fall through.

"I do not think it is prudent to ask the public to support a referendum that is largely based on speculation," Tartre said.

Town Councilor Cathy Breen, who supports Question 1, said conversations  the council and OceanView have been conducted privately, in executive session, and really shouldn't have any bearing on what the library does.

"If (the library board) raises private gifts in excess of $1.25 million and decides to spend (it) on the library, it is already entitled to do so," Breen said. "Tartre’s claims about the town’s negotiations with OceanView are merely speculation."

Breen said Tartre has no first-hand knowledge of the council's private discussions and "her conjecture is not relevant to the final disposition of land behind Lunt/Plummer-Motz or revenues generated from the same."

But Rabinowitz said fundraising for a project that has so many "triggers," or ways it could be killed by the council, would be very difficult. If the council did eventually kill the project, she said, the library would be forced, ethically, to return the money it raises.

More than books

Moving the library to Lunt School would allow for what many say is much-needed storage and programming space.

"This is not just for the books, it's the space," library Director Lyn Sudlow said. "People coming in are looking to sit, plug in their (laptop computers). We have no place for young adults."

The library has six computers available for normal computer use, several more for library-only database searches. If the library expands, new computers are included in the costs of the project.

Sudlow estimated that the library would have to add two new librarians and another janitor if it expands to the Lunt building. Those positions are included in variance estimates that would be theoretically offset by future tax income from putting old town buildings back on the tax rolls.

While some argue e-books may soon render libraries a thing of the past, major publishers, including HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, have limited or refused to license e-books to libraries.

Community center

A plan to create a space for community programs in the Motz building has been popular with many on both sides of the debate. The proposal is projected to cost $900,000.

Anything under $1 million does not require voter approval, so the community center could be created even if the referendum fails.

Community Programs Director Lucky D'Ascanio said she would like to offer more daytime programs for young children and older people, but that she does not have space to do so.

"We would offer additional fitness programs during the day," she said, adding that she would also be able to offer daytime programs such as senior luncheons, drawing and painting courses, and preschool programs for young children, that residents have expressed interest in, but the town does not have space for.

Several town councilors have suggested the town explore a more direct partnership with OceanView, utilizing a public/private partnership to create a space in the Plummer-Motz building where elderly residents could participate in community programs.

Libby said the new elementary school could be used for after school programming and meeting space instead of spending the money to convert Motz school.

However, D'Ascanio said the department already plans to utilize the elementary school, but that she could expand programming significantly, particularly for older residents, and increase revenue from the new program fees to cover it, if she had daytime classroom space. 

Polls will be open at the high school from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on June 14 for voting on the referendum.

The library is offering tours of its current space on June 9 and 10 from 10 a.m. to noon and June 11 from 1-3 p.m.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.