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Library remains a puzzle for Cape Elizabeth

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Library remains a puzzle for Cape Elizabeth

CAPE ELIZABETH — After voters defeated a proposed $6 million bond that would have replaced Thomas Memorial Library, town councilors and library advocates are reassessing their strategies.

In addition to the bond, the town would have needed to raise at least another $1.5 million to cover the total project cost, which came in around $8 million.

"Based on feedback I got from talking to people in the community, the price tag is what gave people the most pause," Councilor David Sherman said. "There's no anti-library feeling in the town. Maybe in different economic times it might have sailed through."

Voters not only rejected the library bond, but overwhelmingly approved a Town Charter amendment prompted by the library bond that forces a citizen vote for any single capital expense that exceeds $1 million.

The Town Council initially planned to vote on the bond without a referendum, but received heavy backlash from citizens and voted 5-2 in May to move the bond to a popular vote.

Sherman was one of the dissenting votes, with Councilor Kathy Ray.

"My concern overall is that the council needs to deal with the needs of all its citizens, even if that means approving a project that maybe only 40 percent of our citizens use," Sherman said, noting services or projects approved by the Town Council without a citizen vote, like Richards Pool, the Shore Road path and the trail system. "I just feel like we end up at the tyranny of majority here, and we end up losing projects or aspects of our town that are important to a lot of people. The flip side was that the library was a very expensive project."

Despite the bond failing, it's clear the library needs work. The disjointed building at 6 Scott Dyer Road – actually five separate buildings cobbled together, the oldest dating back to 1849 – has more than a 100 deficiencies.

According to a 2009 report by a Wisconson-based library consulting firm, Himmel & Wilson, the library lacks adequate accessibility and is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act; has significant water damage; inadequate space for services and storage, and a boiler room that doubles as a storage closet, among other issues. 

Library board Chairwoman RuthAnne Haley attributed the failure of the library bond to an "11th-hour" facilities study presented to the School Board in October. The report put the cost of updates and repairs for the majority of the town's buildings, from the fire station to Town Hall, at $12.5 million.

Haley said opponents of the library bond exploited the study and used it to sway public opinion.

"The nay-sayers at the end sent out emails and did it in an anonymous way," she said. "Signs posted around town were not identified as to who was behind them or who paid for them. If they were against the library and had concerns about the price, they certainly had lots of opportunity to come forward earlier and did not."

The opponents ran adds in the Cape Courier newspaper attributed to "concerned citizens," citing spending and lack of necessity as reasons to reject the bond.

Still, Town Manager Michael McGovern acknowledged the vote on the bond wasn't close – almost 57 percent of voters rejected it – and the result can't be attributed to a few individuals.

"I think we need to figure out why and come up with a plan that is satisfactory to citizens," McGovern said. "We make a mistake to zero-in on a few individuals. We need to understand what people's expectations are for the library and its services."

The council will take another look at the library project early next month in a joint workshop with the School Board on Jan. 2 and again at a Jan. 10 council workshop.

"I think we as a council have to come in with an open mind and listen to all options and make the best decision for the town," Sherman said. "I don't think it's a good idea to rush back to voters until we spent more time on it."

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