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Welcome to my blog, which features frequent updates on local Takoma Park issues, including City Council meeting agendas, plus occasional commentary on national news and politics.

Update on Library Renovation Project

There have been numerous comments from residents on neighborhood lists regarding the proposed Takoma Park Library renovation project. Rather than trying to answer each comment individually, I thought it would make sense for me to offer a comprehensive statement on why I support the project, in order to ensure that everyone gets a full sense of my thinking. Before diving into that, the following link includes lots of details on the project and its development: https://takomaparkmd.gov/initiatives/project-directory/library-renovation/

The Library project is a key item in the proposed City budget for Fiscal Year 2018, which starts July 1. With the budget under active consideration by the City Council – we’ll be finalizing the budget and tax rates next month – it’s an important time for residents to register their views. This week’s City Council hearing (Wednesday, April 26, starting at 7:30 PM) includes public hearings on the budget and tax rates at the meeting’s start. I urge all interested parties to attend – anyone can speak for up to 3 minutes. I’m also hosting a meeting for Ward one residents on budget and tax issues on Tuesday, Mary 2 at 7:30 PM in the Community Center Azalea Room.

I see the Library as one of the key institutions that make Takoma Park a wonderful, unique place to live.  You can go to the Library at any time of day and see crowds of people: toddlers during circle time, seniors in the mid-morning, students after school, job seekers later in the day, people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities, gathering to read, study and learn. But it’s 62 years old and in need of a serious upgrade.

The current design has estimated construction costs of $5.5 million and a total price tag of around $7 million once equipment, moving, storage, and continued operations during construction are factored in). To me that makes sense only if we pay for it with a 30-year bond, in order to space out the costs over time (with future users contributing) and keep the annual amounts at a reasonable level.  I don’t think it would be fair to spend that type of money in a short period of time in a way that would unduly burden current taxpayers.

By paying for it though a 30-year bond, the annual cost is under $400,000. That’s still a substantial sum, but one that I think it manageable within the overall context of our budget. I say that especially because I believe we can make other reductions in the proposed budget that will get us down to or very close to the Constant Yield tax rate (the rate at which our overall tax burden for next year will be the same as this year) without cutting into any key programs.

How is the Library currently used? Last year there were over 17,000 Library program participants. It’s obviously not the case that in our City of 17,000 everyone went to one program – there are plenty of repeat users. And the 17,000 doesn’t count those who just come in for books, reading and studying, so the total number of users is higher. There were also over 17,000 computer sessions (again with some overlap).

Hundreds of local school children have a great connection to the Library. Students from Takoma Park Elementary School and Piney Branch Elementary School regularly visit the Library with their classes. This year over 600 kids will have participated in several dozen classes or programs. There were also four special programs this year for TPES ESOL parents and kids, as part of the Books and Breakfast program, funded by the Takoma Foundation.

The Library offers Circle Time twice every Tuesday (with 35 – 50 kids each time), plus Spanish and French circle time, and there are many other programs for children and adults that are unique to our area (that is, they are only happening at our library). In short the Library is actively used by residents of our community, especially by our young people, all of whom have an opportunity to cultivate a lifelong love of reading.

The challenge in providing all of these great programs is that, as noted above, the facilities of the current 62 year old structure need a major upgrade. Teen students who wish to study together at the Library they can't do it very well or at all without displacing younger children or distracting adults. There is recreational space in the Community Center, but it’s not the same as permanent library space in terms of giving students study time and space. The library doesn't have adequate space for children's programs without staff having to move furniture every day. The same is true for most other programs. The staff spaces and restrooms are inadequate. The book stacks are not ADA compliant (they are too tall and there isn’t enough space in between for wheel chairs to operate). The roof leaks. The list goes on -- if we're going to keep the library here we need to renovate it.

I would add that the current design is the result of a lengthy process, which involved numerous public meetings, focus groups, online surveys, Council meetings, etc. The full list is on the website, but the bottom line is that a series of assessments were done to analyze needs and consider resident input.

Of course there’s a fundamental question as to whether Takoma Park should have its own library. I respect those who would like us to close our library and rely on the Silver Spring library, but I don’t agree. We have lots of residents here, including especially younger people, who won't be able to take advantage of the Silver Spring facility as easily as they do now, or at all to be honest. Many other residents recognize the important role our library plays for children, youth, immigrants, seniors, lower income residents, and the community in general, and do want to keep it here, but have some reluctance to invest more heavily in improving it.

One option would be to do minimal upgrades and keep it the same size, which would cost about $1.5 million (and over $2 million with all the other costs). That option would stop the leaks and brighten up the facility, but not address most of the other issues. A second option, which was on the table when I joined the Council, would have cost around $3 million for construction, and would have increased the size somewhat to begin to address the space issues, but -- given the ADA compliance needs in particular -- it would have still made the space unnecessarily tight and allowed for fewer books overall.

I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of going with an expanded facility that might have some nicer meeting spaces, but that would -- as a library -- actually have fewer books. That struck me as going down a path that would give us a version of the new Silver Spring library -- a building some like and some don't, but where the focus on the purpose of libraries seems to have been forgotten to some degree. The Council agreed with this concern. After further meetings, design work, public discussions, and a public walk-though on the site, we ultimately began to move forward on planning for the current design that addresses the needs discussed above, and also makes improvements in the physical connection between the Library and the Community Center.

Whether the Council wants to go forward with the current version of the renovation project and/or the bonding has yet to be decided. The bonding itself is well within the guidelines in the City charter, but we’ll have a separate hearing on the bond proposal. And we'll have to vote on the budget, taking into account the cost of borrowing over time, interest payments, etc. Again, I encourage residents to offer their views during our budget process, including at the public hearing on April 26.

Obviously, every dollar spent on one thing is a dollar that can't be spent on something else (or be retained by taxpayers), so this project will have a financial impact on taxpayers and on the City. When the various design ideas are taken into account – unless we literally decide to spend nothing on the Library -- the debate centers around spending $400,000 versus maybe $150,000 or $200,000 a year. With those lower numbers we’ll fall short in a number of ways from where I think we should go. I recognize that some residents will prefer a lower number, but for me on balance the current design is one that I think makes sense and is in line with our values.

City Council Action -- Week of May 1, 2017

April 26, 2017 City Council Meeting Agenda