Lenox Library deal set for vote

LENOX — A plan to put the public library's operations, budget and most of its staff under the wing of Town Hall is on the table for action by the Select Board and by voters at a special town meeting in November.

The proposed agreement by the private Lenox Library Association's board of trustees to cut costs and increase efficiency by making the library a town department was released this past week.

Library Director Amy Lafave, a lifelong resident, would become a town employee, along with her seven full- and part-time staffers.

Since its founding in 1856, the highly regarded library has been operated and primarily funded by the association, with the town providing only about 46 percent of its budget since 1991, far below state requirements. Under the proposed agreement, only the fundraising development staff would remain association employees.

In May 2007, with the library facing potential bankruptcy, annual town meeting voters agreed by 573 to 110 to bail out the library by buying the building for $1.5 million through a Community Preservation Act bond, helping fund operations for $242,000 a year initially, and leasing the building back to the association for $1 a year.

The purchase enabled the association to pay off $1.4 million owed to the Bank of America by April 2008 because the library's massive renovation project ended up costing $3.75 million, triple the original projection.

According to the proposed agreement, the $1 a year lease would be extended for 25 years, and the association would retain control of the library's books, historical archives and music collections and its endowment.

"We're not under duress right now, but when the next recession comes, we certainly will be," said Lee/Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen in an interview. "We want to make decisions that are best in terms of securing the stability of the library now, when we're not in a crisis, versus when we are."

At this past week's Select Board meeting, Library Association board of trustees Vice President Richard Taylor cited a Dutch proverb: "Fix the roof while the sun is shining."

Taylor pointed to challenges ahead such as sustainability — "the need to strengthen our funding base" as a public institution that has balanced its books, "but just barely."

He cautioned that one formidable recession could wipe out the library's endowment of $1,041,000, and pointed out that maintenance as well as investment in new programming and technology is too often deferred.

"I feel like I've not been running a library, I've been running a non-profit," Lafave said. "So now I could focus on what I do best, rather than on what I don't do as well."

"We would not be raising money to pay for Amy's salary or for the plumbing, we'd raise the money to pay for the programs, for things that can benefit the community by enriching the library," said Barbara Sussman Goldberg, president of the board of trustees.

According to state standards, the town has been drastically underfunding the library, forcing Town Hall since 2003 to seek waivers from the state Board of Library Commissioners in order to remain certified as the town library.

That board has signaled that within five years, it is likely to stop granting those waivers, Lafave said. Only 17 percent of libraries across the state are run by private associations rather than by municipal governments.

The memorandum of understanding was approved 14-0 by the library's board, including Selectmen David Roche and Kenneth Fowler, but Ketchen, also a voting member of the board, abstained.

It calls for the town to pay $331,000 to operate the library in 2018, buttressed by an additional $132,000 annual commitment from the library association through its private fund-raising.

That means the town's current budget contribution of $268,000 would increase by $62,000 a year, meeting the state's requirement for certification.

The owner of an average $400,000 single-family home in town would pay an additional $20 a year in real estate taxes to help operate the library, Ketchen said.

The agreement would yield "a more efficient, effective, stable management structure with library operations staff coming under the town's employ," he said. "The trustees will continue to own some of the most precious assets of the town, as well as all the books. The synergies between the two organizations will enable us to have the best library that Lenox can be."

The association would continue to seek donor support for expanded programming and the trustees would consult and cooperate with the town on operations and programming.

About 3,100 Lenox residents, out of a current population of 4,995, hold library cards, Lafave said.

Ketchen emphasized that the town would have a 90-day right of first refusal if the 15-member library board approves the sale of any collections by the required two-thirds vote.

"We're talking about a very public process for the disposition of meaningful assets, anything over $10,000 in value," he stated. "This is not in anticipation of any sale of assets."

The end result is "more robust" protection of the town's assets at the library," Ketchen said.

The proposed deal was backed by the three Select Board members — Roche, Fowler and Edward Lane — who attended Wednesday's meeting.

"This is the most logical step since we first took over the property," Fowler said. "What we're doing is taking over the bare-bones management of the library. We're not enhancing programs or providing more materials. Donors will now realize that their dollars will go into those kinds of things."

As Fowler described the deal, "we're obviously not bailing out the library but we are sustaining it, and I think the townspeople will see that, because the library is the hub of this community. It really serves the youth as well as the older folks with all the programs provided."

"We understand that this is a benefit to the town," said Roche, the Select Board chairman, stressing enhanced efficiency. "The library is an institution in this town, it's been here forever, the building is beautiful, it brings people into the town, and it educated Eddie [Lane] and I when we were 5 years old and used to go to `Story Hour' together. The last thing we ever want to see is the library disappearing."

Roche anticipated "cheerfully presenting this to the residents of Lenox so we can get their input and approval, because that's what we're going to have to do."

"From all indications, I think it's the way to go," Lane agreed.

The full board will discuss and probably vote on the agreement at its Oct. 4 meeting. Voters would weigh in at a special town meeting, likely on Nov. 2, where approval by a simple majority would be needed. If approved, the agreement would go into effect on Jan. 1.

In his presentation for the selectmen, Taylor, the board of trustees vice president, said that the association's partnership with the town "has worked very well, the library is a gem, something that everybody in town should be very proud of. And I think most people are."

He described Lafave, the library director, as "embodying the collective memory of Lenox."

As she put it, "I feel that we're a good library but we could be a great one and this would go a long way toward supporting and strengthening the library."

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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