We appreciate the opportunity to share an opinion piece about the proposed library construction project. This piece reflects our opinions as the parents of three children under the age of 5 and frequent library patrons.
We have spent several months attending meetings, researching local libraries, and speaking with many town and library officials. After these meetings and correspondence we feel the proposed library project could lead to two unpleasant outcomes.
The first would be closing the Suffield library – not because of lack of funding, concern, or volunteers – but because of a lack of compromise. The second is that if a new library were built it would have the same problems as our current library.
Our library project is an opportunity to compromise and address the needs and concerns of most residents. There are residents who feel they cannot use the current building. There are other residents who are panicked because they cannot afford a tax increase. Many families want to move to Suffield from surrounding towns and find that Suffield does not offer very many services yet has higher taxes. Many of our younger residents leave town and find more value elsewhere. There are also many life-long residents who unenthusiastically retire to more cost-effective areas. If completed correctly, our library project could bring many services to our town, improve community relations, lower residents' personal entertainment costs, help our children better prepare for school, and do so in a manner that is fiscally responsible.
The fact of the matter is that our library problems are not unique. Many surrounding towns have addressed similar problems. Some have chosen to renovate current buildings, others to rebuild. No town has spent near the current proposed budget, and many of the towns we researched have more residents than Suffield. The focus of our project needs to move from hopes and dreams, or the inclination to spend other people's money, and focus on the reality that this is a real estate transaction. Since there are few renters in town we have all taken part in at least one real estate transaction, and every real estate transaction starts with a budget. Personally we have run the numbers top-up, bottom-down, based on comparable properties, and based on need; each method leads to a bottom line between $3 million and $5 million dollars. The simplest math as follows:
13,152 (actual residents) x 1.3 (square feet per resident) = 17,098 square feet of library space
17,098 (square feet) x 250 (average cost of high-end commercial construction) = $ 4.3 million
We are neither opposed to a new building nor do we feel there is anything insurmountable stopping repair of the old building. We do feel the current plan is too expensive, will be underutilized, and that a better plan can be developed which will address the needs of most residents. We are very frustrated by the methods in which the current leadership has presented information. The reality is that it's easy to make numbers lie.
The foundation to build a new library says the library is over-utilized. Common sense tells a different story. As parents of three young children we use the library frequently. Many programs for our children have been rescheduled or canceled due to lack of interest.
On an average day there are not 400 library patrons. At any given time, on an average morning, the number of library staff outnumbers the number of library patrons. Even accepting the number of 400 library patrons per day – that number was multiplied by 300 (days open) to determine the number of library visitors per year – meaning that the 5 members of our family who visited on the busiest day of the year counted as 1,500 visitors. The foundation has deliberately used misleading math.
Prior to becoming an at-home mom, Cheryl was a special education teacher. It is very upsetting to regularly hear the library foundation use special education regulation improperly and take advantage of the inclusive and understanding nature of our residents.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice (the department that enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act), “State and local governments are not required to take action that would result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of the service, program, or activity or in undue financial and administrative burdens.”
The legislation recognizes that state and local governments work under unique constraints. No existing town building, including our new high school, meets today's ADA standards. No existing building is required to meet today's ADA standards. Some specific examples in the law include – if you were to add an elevator it has to be of a certain width to accommodate a wheelchair, however if an older building does not have an elevator, one does not need to be added.
In general, buildings don't make the world accessible, people make the world accessible. When you have a stroller, wheelchair, or mobility problem there is no easy building to get into. Those people who deal with these issues need increased patience, compassion, and understanding, not an additional expense.
As regular library patrons we perceive there to be several major problems with our current library facility.
1. It is Filthy: The library is dusty and dirty. We have never seen (physically or the effects of) any staff member, janitor, town worker, or contractor clean any part of the building. Toys and surfaces have never been sanitized. The bathrooms are disgusting.
2. There is a lot of clutter: It is our estimate that one third of the media in the library is too dated or damaged to be of use. It is very difficult to find pertinent materials with so much useless media in the catalog and on the shelves. We have allegedly outgrown the current building for more than 10 years, but our family has been bringing home movies that don't work, books with torn pages and left the Suffield library frustrated because we couldn't sort through and find applicable materials. A strategy of having less, but more usable materials would be a huge improvement.
3. Organization: Science fiction – one of the most popular categories of books is located in the one area of the library that we cannot access with a double stroller. However, medical books that are over 20 years old (with information that is no longer applicable) are on one of the main aisles. The keys to the bathrooms are nowhere near the bathrooms. There are ways to improve organization and make the library more user-friendly.
4. Scheduling: Other towns have successful drop-in programs that have proven beneficial in preparing children to learn to read. We have asked for programs similar to rhyme time in Enfield or the Agawam drop-in PJ story time for 5 consecutive years. Our library has no regularly scheduled educational programs. By limiting programs to specific dates, ages, and requiring registration, many of our community members do not take part in library activities.
5. There are low expectations: Basic sociology says that when the bathrooms and drop box are locked the expectation is that residents will not be responsible. Residents are meeting the low expectations. There is more writing on the walls in the library than in the unlocked bathrooms at the high school. The lack of organization in the vestibule, books left on tables, staff members eating and drinking on the floor, and other cues give the wrong impression. If there were higher expectations and better examples, for library patrons, those higher expectations would be met.
6. There are too many fees: Parks and Recreaction uses our library for many events such as card making ($15) and pumpkin painting ($5). Similar programs are available at other local libraries for free.
7. Great programs are not available to all: Polar Express and Fancy Nancy's Tea Party were two successful events. Rather than turn patrons away, some events should be expanded to include more people. Why not offer Polar Express four times rather than two or have an entire Fancy Nancy day? The cost and efforts would be insignificant; the real work is in the initial preparation. When people are turned away one or more times they are not likely to come back.
8. Expanded hours: Library hours should be expanded or altered to reflect modern times. For many two-income families it is unusual for someone to have the availability to bring a child to the library during the work-day. The library should be open on Saturday night and some holidays.
None of the previous problems have anything to do with the physical library building and there is no guarantee that these problems will not exist in a new building. They are all within the scope of the library director's responsibilities and they can all be corrected very easily.
Legitimately there are some problems with the current building:
1. Roof: A solution was presented to capital expenditures shortly after the 2008 vote which carried a cost of about $200,000 to create a domed roof and to remove the awkward cover at the main entrance of the building.
2. HVAC: Replacing a heating system is not insurmountable.
3. Accessibility: Could be improved – larger doors, expanded parking for those that need extra help, stroller/wheelchair access from Main Street would all be appreciated and easy changes.
The library committee needs to assess our town's needs, not a wish list, and come up with a more fair solution.
1. Two gathering areas: One for large groups, one for small. The idea that we need a separate children's room and six meeting rooms is not true. One of the benefits to the current gallery situation is that children are exposed to the work of different artists.
2. A reduced entry area: (from the plan): A similar area in our high school is totally unused.
3. Improved Media Organization: Both in reduction of materials and using space more effectively.
4. Play space: It would be nice if the current Bridge Street playground were maintained, or if the large grassy area were utilized for children's activities. Outdoor play is important for children and we already have the land.
5. A good cleaning: We need the reassurance that the problems at the current library wouldn't exist in a new building. Regardless of the decision, we will be utilizing our current building for at least two more years.
6. 50 vs. 90 parking spaces: We attend events at the Enfield Public Library as do other residents from Suffield, East Longmeadow, East Windsor, Windsor Locks and Holyoke. At the busiest events there are approximately 70 patrons and 35 vehicles. The Suffield library is not going to attract as many people as the Enfield library.
In summary, we see three choices:
1. Proceed with the current plan that is very similar to the 2008 plan and expect a similar outcome.
2. Improve the current building both physically, but mostly with improved organization.
3. Determine that it would be more cost-effective to create a new structure, ensure two vacant buildings would be eliminated, establish a responsible budget, and proceed with a fiscally responsible plan.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Christopher and Cheryl Doran
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