Funding an unanswered question for Falmouth library renovation

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FALMOUTH — After preliminary conceptual designs for a $5 million Falmouth Memorial Library expansion and renovation were unveiled last week, it remains unclear how funding for the project will materialize.

Amy Kuhn, president of the library’s board of trustees, this week said it’s too early to tell how funding will happen without knowing residents’ willingness to privately raise funds and contribute. She said a feasibility study this winter should answer questions about how the project will be funded.

“I’m reluctant to put too much stock in that number right now,” Kuhn said, referring to the $5 million estimate, drawn from current costs per square foot. “I’m hesitant to comment on (funding) because we don’t know the total number and what ratio might be between (town) funding and private fundraising.”

But it’s clear that without a significant town contribution, private fundraising would have to be substantial.

The Town Council, under the Town Charter, is authorized to spend up to $1 million without going to voters for approval through a referendum – only one-fifth of the total projected cost.

More money would almost certainly require a bond. To avoid borrowing, voters would have approve draining the town’s $5 million undesignated fund balance – and that’s only after getting council approval for a referendum, or by gathering enough voter signatures to send it to the ballot.

Town Council Chairwoman Teresa Pierce echoed Kuhn and said she has not yet examined the latest proposal.

“I don’t think the library, which is a separate entity (from the town), has really finished its work yet and I’m waiting for them to do that,” she said. “We’re a long way from that discussion at this point.”

Even the library board balked at a similarly priced proposal as recent as this year.

In March, the board rejected a proposal to move the library to the former Plummer Elementary School, because it was too expensive. The cost? Also about $5 million.

Kim Millick, former library president, told the council at an April 8 meeting that the trustees backed out of the plan to move the library because it was too expensive and because people liked the current location at 5 Lunt Road. 

“The finances are not feasible, and we understand the people of Falmouth have an attachment to the (existing) building,” she told the council. “Potential opportunities are being pursued on site and these opportunities will require the town to be an active partner in order for us to be successful.”

At the time, another architect, Andy Hyland, had projected an on-site expansion could cost about $2 million.

Falmouth voters also rejected a $5.65 million plan in 2011 to move the library to the former Lunt School building. The plan also called for renovating Plummer to ready it for sale and renovating the Mason-Motz building and gym to accommodate Community Services.

Neighboring towns have had mixed results when it comes to funding library renovations.

In June, Yarmouth voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.5 million bond as part $2.5 million project to make safety and maintenance improvements at the Merrill Memorial Library. The remaining $1 million was raised privately.

In a November 2012 vote, Cape Elizabeth residents rejected a $6 million bond for a total overhaul of Thomas Memorial Library. On top of the bond, residents would have needed to raise another $1.5 million.

The town is now in the process of developing a new plan to renovate the library.

Unlike other towns, the Falmouth library is a private nonprofit, not an entity of the town. Still, about 75 percent of the library’s budget is taxpayer-funded.

Kuhn said because Falmouth’s library is private, the relevancy to other towns’ actions on libraries is limited.

The latest conceptual designs, drawn up by Scott Simons Architects for $20,000 and funded by the town, laid out three options, all of which double the library’s size to 22,000 square feet.

One of the designs would move Depot Road, which tacked on another $350,000 to the total projected cost, lead architect Scott Simons said during a question-and-answer session after the design presentation last week.

Library officials contend the renovation and expansion are needed because library use has increased dramatically in recent years: lending of traditional books, audio books, e-books and other items has increased by more than 40 percent in the last decade, according to library figures.

Demand for programming has pushed usable space to its limit, forcing staff to turn former storage rooms into offices. In addition, inter-library loans have skyrocketed since the library began using the statewide system in 2003, to more than 25,000 loans annually, according to the library.

The last renovation was in 1995.

The next public meeting is scheduled for the end of October, when Simons will present a single design based on feedback from the community.

In November, the board is scheduled to present an update to the Town Council.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.