2012-11-16 / Front Page

Officials baffled by library vote

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — Supporters of a new Thomas Memorial Library are looking for answers after a referendum to rebuild the facility failed to pass with Cape Elizabeth voters on Nov. 6.

Voters decided not to spend $6 million to rebuild the library, with 57 percent of votes casted as a ‘no’ on the question. That leaves the issue of what to do with the aging facility up to the town council, which has to decide in coming months whether it wants to make changes to its plan and put the question up to voters again in the future.

Jessica Sullivan is a member of the town council and a liaison to the Thomas Memorial Library Foundation, which raises funds for the library.

“I was very disappointed. I thought it would pass. I had heard a lot of support for it and I was surprised,” Sullivan said.

RuthAnne Haley, chairman of the library board of trustees, said she had heard “A lot of positive feedback” in town, and she too thought there was enough support in Cape Elizabeth to approve construction of the new library.

“We are in a very serious situation with our economy. Everyone’s tightening their belts,” Haley said. “It was disappointing. Hopefully we can continue to work on this. There are people that are still very passionate and believe this is a priority for our community – this is a facility and a service for everyone.”

There is currently no town council plan to bring the library back to a referendum, but Sullivan said she wants to make sure the library remains a point of discussion and doesn’t fade away from the council’s focus.

“We’re going to have to regroup and decide the next steps. I want to keep the library issue on the table because the building in our town is the greatest need for replacement. This building is falling apart. I’m certainly interested in putting a bond back before the voters,” Sullivan said.

Haley said the board of trustees will examine grant funding and other avenues that haven’t previously been explored in hopes of easing the financial burden on taxpayers. But even if the price tag comes down, another referendum will be necessary in the future.

That’s because Cape Elizabeth residents also voted to approve a charter change that requires single capital expenditures of more than $1 million to automatically trigger a citizen vote. The margin of passage for that referendum was significant, with 4,157 voting for it and 1,372 against.

Although nearly 60 percent of voters decided not to support the new library, very few of those who voted “no” identified themselves publicly. Signs were put up in town that urged voters to “renovate” rather than rebuild, but those who chose not to support the new library did not argue in a public forum.

“The opponents never identified themselves,” wrote town manager Mike McGovern in an email.

Haley said that the slowly recovering but still tough economy could have been one reason for the failure of the proposal. She and Sullivan also cited a facilities study released last month, which the town council commissioned at the beginning of 2012, as a possible reason behind Cape Elizabeth’s unwillingness to approve the bond measure.

The facilities study was conducted by Harriman Associates, a Portland firm of architects and engineers that organized data for seven municipal buildings, made site visits and then made recommendations for capital improvements based on their observations.

The study did not specifically include the library because a separate committee studied that building in 2009. But the 400- page document did recommend more than $12 million in capital improvements to the seven city buildings it analyzed, including $10 million to the schools.

That number may have scared off some voters when the document was released at the 11th hour, said Sullivan, but she said the town council has not had a chance to review the study to validate its findings and prioritize the recommendations.

The Cape Elizabeth School Board has begun to discuss the study, but it has not yet to the point at which it can prioritize the work it needs or doesn’t need. School Board Finance Chairman Michael Moore likened Harriman’s findings to an energy audit of a house. After the audit, a homeowner has the option to implement certain recommendations that will be beneficial, while waiting on others.

He said there has been discussion about forming a committee made up of school board and council members to work through the study, but that decision has not yet been made.

“The study was completed less than a month and a half ago. We’d love to say here’s specifically what we’re going to do,” Moore said. “But given the size of it, we’d rather go through it thoughtfully and then make a decision.”

Thomas Memorial Library Director Jay Scherma was unavailable for comment because he is out of the office on vacation until Monday, Nov. 19.

Children’s librarian Rachel Davis said she did not want to comment on the voters’ decision. A statement on the library’s website reads, “The library staff remain committed to providing the best service possible to the citizens of Cape Elizabeth.”

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