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Lessons learned from the new library

February 29, 2012

Today, the new Walpole Public Library at 143 School Street opens for the first time. This is the culmination of a planning and construction effort that lasted over a decade, led by many passionate citizens and town officials.

It goes without saying that this effort has been highly controversial. Many continue to seethe with anger about the close override vote in June 2009 that led to the library winning by only eight votes, after having been defeated in an election just seven months prior.

Some have vowed never to step foot in the new building. Others steadfastly insist that the project was worth it.

I think I might now fall somewhere in between.

I was an original supporter of the override, because I felt the town needed a new library and there was state grant money available. The cost per homeowner, about $70 per year, declining over 20 years, made the project seem reasonable. I still think that all things considered the cost was a good deal for the town, although I’ve gotten beyond my naïveté and realized that while the state may be paying a portion of the cost through a grant, that still means all of us who pay any type of state tax pay for it.

Nevertheless, the fact that the project will end with what appears to be a surplus in the budget is very exciting. I would not support using any of this surplus money on decorating or accessorizing the library – it should be returned to the taxpayers directly or indirectly in some form.

To me, it didn’t matter how many times this override came up for a vote, as every voter in town should have come out for every election. The same 83 percent of voters who turned out to vote in the November 2008 presidential election when it was rejected should have utilized their right to vote to come out a second time at the June 2009 town election. There’s no excuse for coming to one election, and not the other. Voting is a right that many citizens in other countries don’t have.

Unfortunately, in the years since the project has moved forward, we have learned a number of facts that make me regret having supported this override. This is one of the chief reasons why I continue to be hesitant about supporting land purchases and new municipal facilities in overrides because I now have the impression that the town isn’t doing a particularly good job with facilities planning.

Town officials have admitted in the years since the 2009 override vote that they have never had a broad, cohesive strategy for new town facilities. It has now been reported that the site where the new library stands might have been better for a new police station or senior center – but it’s too late now because town officials never bothered to come up with a sensible approach to town facilities before the library vote. The debate over reuse of the old library has now pushed this piecemeal reckless town strategy to the forefront, as Town Hall waited well over two years before even starting to seriously discuss the reuse of the building. All of this seems like a failure in leadership that we will be regretting for many years to come. What a mess.

Residents were also told all along that renovating the old library on Common Street would be more expensive than simply building anew. Yet we were never told what the cost estimates for renovation actually were, and unfortunately it seems a lot of citizens put too much trust in our officials when they made these assertions. We have since learned that renovating the old library into a senior center would cost $4.1 million, which is significantly less than the $11.2 million ($6.2 million from local taxpayers) that the new library cost. While a library renovation is different from a senior center renovation, this figure gives us a framework of potential renovation costs, and it makes me suspicious. This has permanently hardened my skepticism when any town official insists that construction of a new facility costs less than renovation.

I am also surprised by the massive size of the new library, which I think is larger than necessary. I am concerned about the potential need for additional staffing, which the town will likely be unable to provide due to budgetary concerns and also does not need to provide considering the number of patrons that actually use the facility. I am, however, in favor of leasing out a cafe in the building (even though many are opposed to that) as I feel it would bring in revenue for the town and downtown Walpole needs a cafe.

My buyers remorse about the new library is one of the reasons why I have had a lot of trouble these past two years supporting overrides proposed by town officials. The override in 2010, for a new police station on Robbins Road, was talked up as being a fantastic deal for the town that was to be located at an ideal location, and yet we learned just last fall that a Master Plan Implementation Committee study concluded Robbins Road is actually ideal for a senior center and a police station is better for town-owned land on Washington Street. Once again, this is due to an apparent failure in leadership.

The Walpole Woodworkers override proposed last year, meanwhile, was for a piece of land that was, by any measure, a piece of trash and a good portion of it was nothing but wetlands. The town had no idea what they intended to do with it (once again going back to an utter lack of direction and leadership from Town Hall when it comes to facilities use), but supposedly had in mind that they might stave off a mythical 40B armageddon, which has not materialized and there is no evidence it ever will materialize.

Both of the past two overrides have done little to ameliorate my concern that I was duped by town officials into supporting the new library based on assertions and claims that may not have been entirely accurate. It may take me many years before I’ll start trusting Town Hall when it comes to new town facilities and land purchases again.

But in the end, what must be understood is that the voters spoke and while the majority was slim, the library initiative won fair and square. I am sure many Walpole residents will enjoy the new building, as well they should. But let us not forget the lessons learned.

I look forward to seeing you all at the new Walpole Library! I am thrilled about the new local history room, and you may find me there often. But first I’ll need to find the room where the town budget is located for public review…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 5, 2012 3:14 PM

    To me, it didn’t matter how many times this override came up for a vote, as every voter in town should have come out for every election. The same 83 percent of voters who turned out to vote in the November 2008 presidential election when it was rejected should have utilized their right to vote to come out a second time at the June 2009 town election. There’s no excuse for coming to one election, and not the other. Voting is a right that many citizens in other countries don’t have.</quote?

    My main issue with this statement was, whay was there a 2nd vote? Why weren't we heard loud and clear on the first vote. I did come and vote for the 2nd time, but then again, why couldn't it be put on the ballot again for it to be declined. I've never heard of such nonsense.

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