Stonington forms task force to look at funding cash-strapped library

Stonington — The Board of Finance didn’t give the Stonington Free Library any more funding Wednesday night but did agree to form a task force to look into future funding of the independent library and possibly making it a quasi-town agency.

The library appeared before the finance board seeking an increase of its $147,000 annual town funding after a $45,000 deficit forced it to reduce programs and the purchase of materials, not offer raises and close on Fridays at 1 p.m. instead of 5 p.m.

This spring, the library had asked the town to increase its annual contribution from the current $147,000 to $257,000 in 2018-19 but the town left it at the current level.

Board Chairman June Strunk and member Glenn Frishman explained to library officials that the remediation of PCBs contamination at West Vine Street school this summer is proving to be more expensive than expected and the board may have to allocate more funding for the $67 million elementary school renovation and expansion project.

They also are worried that giving the library additional funding and appropriating more money for the PCB work could exceed the 0.5 percent of the $70.2 million budget that they can spend through a supplemental appropriation without having to go to a town meeting for approval. Having to get town meeting approval would slow down the PCB removal work, which needs to be done while students are not in school.

On Wednesday, the board made a $239,694 supplemental appropriation for a removal and replacement of a fuel tank and $44,600 for installation of a new police station camera system. That leaves about $247,706 for PCB remediation without town meeting approval. Money will come from the town’s undesignated fund surplus.

Library board of trustees President Nick Kepple told the board that, over the past decade, the library has not always made the best case for why additional town funding is needed. But he said the library has continued to expand its offerings based on a strategic plan which included programs residents want, continues to seek out private funding and has mounted a capital campaign.

“We’re not asking the town alone to address our needs,” he said. “We are doing everything we can in the private sector.”

But he pointed out the towns of Waterford and East Lyme each fund their libraries with $1 million annually, compared to the $326,500 a year Stonington spends on its libraries. The town gives $93,000 to the Westerly Library and $86,500 to the Mystic & Noank Library. Statewide, Kepple said Stonington spends about 25 percent of what similar-sized municipalities spend on their libraries.

Kepple had proposed a plan that would increase library funding $110,000 a year over the next three years, for a total increase of $330,000.

With the town needing to begin paying off the debt on the school projects, Kepple suggested $60,000 increases over each of five years.

Despite not being able to fund the library’s plan now, board members were willing to look at how the library should be funded over the long term.

“It’s a long-term issue that we need to address,” board member Mike Fauerbach said. “The status quo is not sustainable or the library will go under.”

He added that “If we leave it the way it is, we’ll find out we don’t have a library down the road.”

He pointed out that running a municipal library, as many towns do, would be much more costly for the town than partially funding an independent library.

Board member Tim O’Brien agreed. “We’re shortsighted if we keep funding the library at these low levels. There is value to the town in the library. The town needs to support it,” he said.

Strunk pointed out that the library is considered an “outside agency,” the same as the 16 organizations the town funds, including the Westerly Pops Concert, the Stonington Community Center or the New London Homeless and Hospitality Center.

But it's really not an outside agency, she said. “Maybe we can look at redefining it as a department."

Kepple agreed, saying that some towns have municipal employees in independent libraries.

The board then voted unanimously to create a task force with the library to look into how to fund it in the future.


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