Lenox voters approve takeover of town library operations

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LENOX — After 161 years of operation by a private nonprofit association, the Lenox Library will become a town department as of Jan. 1, ensuring financial stability and continued accreditation by the state.

A robust turnout of residents at Thursday night's special town meeting voted overwhelmingly in favor of a partnership through a proposed agreement between the Lenox Library Association and the Select Board to transfer the library's operations, budget and most of its staff to the town.

"We're here tonight for the single purpose of preserving our Lenox library," said Select Board Chairman David Roche, who's also one of the town's three members on the 15-person library board of trustees. He said private donations had fallen off and that "the current situation was no longer sustainable."

The memorandum of understanding between the town and the association — endorsed by the Select Board, the Finance Committee and the library trustees — converts the library to a town department, much like police, fire, public works and the Lenox Community Center.

Town Hall will operate and fund the library to the tune of $331,000 a year, while the association will contribute $132,000 annually to the operating budget and raise additional funds for programming and interior improvements to the 1815 building, originally the Berkshire County Courthouse. After the courthouse was relocated to Pittsfield, the building was donated to the Lenox Library Association in 1871.

Roche voiced confidence that the library association, founded in 1856, would be able to raise the $132,000 through galas, book sales, golf tournaments and other special events. "It's absolutely achievable, and much more than that," he said.

"The proposal is for the town to step in and take over what it does well: the management and payroll services for the community library," Roche said. "The library will be able to maintain, if not expand, services and hours of operation."

He cautioned that without the new agreement, the library would continue to run a deficit — $58,000 last year — resulting in a reduction of services and hours.

"The success of the library and its future growth is dependent on the town's contribution to this wonderful institution of ours," Roche said.

The town will continue to own and maintain the building, as it has since the association's close call with bankruptcy in 2007, and lease it back to the association for a token $1 annual payment during the next 25 years.

The association will maintain control of the library's collections, but the agreement bars the sale of any items without a two-thirds vote of the board of trustees, followed by a 90-day first option for purchase rights by the town.

The agreement approved by the voters transfers $62,349 to launch the Town Hall operation of the library during the first half of 2018. That money will also meet the state's requirement for municipal support and will fund pension and other post-retirement benefits for library employees joining the town government staff.

Also transferred is $134,411 from funds approved by annual town meeting voters last May as part of the annual municipal support for the library association.

Starting next May, voters will be asked to appropriate about $331,000 annually for library operations, to be supplemented by the $132,000 to be raised by the library association.

Roche acknowledged that the recent $500,000 gift to the library by an anonymous benefactor was warmly welcomed, but is restricted to interior building enhancements and can't be used to fund operations, payroll and other expenses.

Under the agreement, the library association will continue to employ several staffers responsible for fundraising development.

In response to a query from the audience, Roche said the agreement's property tax impact would add about $20 a year to the average home in town, which is valued at $400,000.

Addressing another questioner who asked whether all current library association employees would be hired by the town, Roche said "the only guarantee we will make is that we'll continue the existing services in the hope of expanding them and the hours. The handwriting on the wall would say that would require more labor." But without approval of the agreement, he cautioned, services and the current staff level would face cutbacks.

The virtually unanimous voice-vote approval of the agreement was greeted by a round of applause from the crowd.

Out of 3,728 registered voters, 191, or just over 5 percent, filled the Town Hall auditorium, considered an unusually strong turnout for a special town meeting.

In other action, a transfer of $329,000 from "free cash" was approved unanimously in order to complete state-required recapping of the old town landfill in Lenox Dale, adjacent to the site of a solar power installation. Selectman Channing Gibson said the funding was needed because the extent of the recapping is greater than originally projected.

The town's current "free cash" reserve is just under $3.5 million, with an additional $600,000 in stabilization funds, said Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen.

Also at the meeting, voters unanimously approved a Planning Board request to transfer $50,000 from "free cash" reserves to launch an update of the town's 1999 Master Plan.

The town's Land Use Department would work closely with the Planning Board, other committees and residents for a new look at the community's vision, goals and policies, said Pam Kueber, board chairwoman.

Under state law, the study would cover land use, housing, economic development, natural and cultural resources, open space and recreation, services and facilities, transportation and traffic.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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