By DAN TOMASELLO
LYNNFIELD — Several Finance Committee members aired concerns about the proposed $34 million Lynnfield Library project during a Sept. 21 meeting.
After Library Director Abby Porter and Library Building Committee/Finance Committee member Joe Gallagher gave an overview of the project’s history and its conceptual design (see separate story), Town Administrator Rob Dolan discussed how the project would be funded.
Due to the $9 million provisional Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) grant that the town received, Dolan said that the tax impact will be based on $25 million as opposed to $34 million.
“The project will cost $295 per average house in Lynnfield,” said Dolan. “Some people will pay more and some people will pay less, depending on the assessed value of their house. It’s a 30-year bond, so the people of Lynnfield can estimate $295 a house over 30 years.”
Dolan said the $34 million price tag includes three different components. He said the new building’s cost totals $31 million. He also said $2 million is needed to repair the current Lynnfield Public Library in order to repurpose it “for municipal purposes or other purposes that the community may want.”
Finance Committee Vice Chairman Tom Kayola, who also serves on the Library Building Committee, asked what the $2 million in repairs to the current library entail.
Dolan said a “basic rehab” of the current library includes installing a new roof and making building envelope improvements.
“Those will make the building as good as it can be,” said Dolan. “The most immediate need right now is a roof. We will also probably have to redo the restrooms. A more comprehensive rehab will require hiring an architect to really take a deep dive into options for the building. We did not do that.”
Dolan said the remaining $1 million will be used to rehabilitate the portion of the Reedy Meadow Golf Course that will be home for the proposed new library if voters approve the project at Fall Town Meeting on Monday, Oct. 16. If Fall Town Meeting approves the project, a debt exclusion vote will tentatively take place during a Special Town Election in early December.
“There are two major components of the Reedy Meadow work,” said Dolan. “One is addressing the barn, which is the primary work place for the golf course’s staff. A more complex project involves moving the gas tanks. Our position is you leave things as you found them.”
Finance Committee member Nick Connors, who also serves on the Library Building Committee, asked if the $2 million for the current library’s rehabilitation is included in the town’s capital plan.
“Not right now,” said Dolan. “The roof is something we need to look at, but we have not done the roof in preparation for this project. The roof is not leaking, but if we don’t do this project, we would have to put on a new roof probably in the next year.”
Finance Committee member Gene Covino said the $18 million elementary schools expansion project that was approved three years ago and the $63.5 million public safety buildings and Town Hall project that got approved last year were “non-luxury items” that were needed.
“This project was absolutely a no-brainer when the cost was less and we hadn’t addressed those other things,” said Covino. “But from my perspective, fixing the golf course does nothing for me because the golf course has an enterprise fund that makes money and has Retained Earnings. They could take $1 million and pay for that work.”
While Covino said he hasn’t decided whether to vote in favor of the library project, he is “struggling” with what will happen to the current library.
“We are struggling with new growth and expenses around contracts are rising,” said Covino. “That all collides with an operational override. My question is whether this is a need to have or a nice to have? It has a spectacular design, but we are in a time where we just passed two overrides. We all have tax bills and water bills. These are my questions. And if anyone has answers to any of these questions, I would love to hear them because I haven’t heard them.”
Dolan said it will be up to residents and not him to decide whether the library project is a “need or a want.”
“That debate will happen at Town Meeting,” said Dolan. “Even if we were to make $2 million in renovations to the library, it will require a debt exclusion. This town cannot absorb a $2 million project.”
While Dolan said an operational override is not currently being forecasted, he acknowledged that, “There are some significant issues on the horizon with the public schools.”
“We have a teachers’ contract coming up in a couple of years,” said Dolan. “We have all seen throughout the state the position of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. I believe the negotiations will be fierce, but hopefully will be fair. Fair and the ability to afford are two very different things. We are also looking at special education costs that are not going down, and there are social-emotional issues that schools in every community from Brockton to Wellesley are facing.”
Dolan also acknowledged that the Fire Department has staffing issues at night that need to be addressed.
“We need to bolster the system that we have, especially overnight,” said Dolan. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis, but it is a serious concern.”
Dolan said the issues that the Fire Department and the School Department are facing need to be addressed in a tight fiscal environment.
“We are going to be facing those issues with minimal new growth,” said Dolan. “We received a bump in state aid last year that will not be sustained in the coming years. There will also be the elimination of federal money that localities have lived off of. All of those things are coming home to roost. I do think after we address this particular issue, we should look at what is the next project. Some people have suggested that the high school needs to be rehabilitated at some point or we make an incredible investment in road construction. Whatever that may be, the needs will never end.”
Finance Committee Chairman Chris Mattia asked what the operational expenses and carrying costs will be for a new library.
While Director Abby Porter said she believes the new library will be able to open with the library’s current staff, she acknowledged that more staff might be need to be hired in the future.
“Ideally, I will be asking for more staff because our services will reflect that,” said Porter. “But at this point in time, we can open with what we have. Our staff is amazing and I really want to give them this building so they can show what they can do for this community.”
Mattia wasn’t convinced by Porter’s argument.
“I don’t want to take away from the staff, but we are adding between 10,000- and 15,000-square-feet to the library,” said Mattia. “It’s hard to manage that space with the limited staff you already have, plus you have to worry about having enough custodians to clean the building. If I had to put a rough number on it doing back of the napkin math, you are looking at three-and-a-half to four new people, including custodial. My rough number is $350,000 a year. That includes health insurance and everything. I know the DPW covers some of that, but that needs to be taken into consideration about the overall impact of the building on the town.”
Library Building Committee Chairman Russell Boekenkroeger disagreed with Mattia’s viewpoint.
“We can go down there and work with the staff that we have today,” said Boekenkroeger.
Mattia said the Finance Committee has been requesting information about the new library’s staffing plan for the past five years.
“We still haven’t been able to nail it down and we are at the 11th hour,” said Mattia. “We have to assume there is going to be increased staffing costs.”
Porter said she has a “plan in mind to switch part-time staff around” to make sure the library has “enough people in the building at all times.”
“We can do that very comfortably,” said Porter.
Finance Committee member Chris Caprio asked what is the square footage for the new library and existing building.
Boekenkroeger said the new library is 25,638-square-feet, and the current library is 14,300-square-feet.
Caprio criticized the proposed new library’s $34 million price tag.
“Was a more affordable project looked at that doesn’t have all of the amenities that this library has?” asked Caprio. “We are looking at a $31 million building and we are getting a $9 million grant. The town is actually paying $22 million for a library. If you do it for $12 million or $15 million, you are saving money. We all have been in the library, and know it needs either major renovations or a new building. But to me, this seems very lavish. It seems to me as though we are going homerun or strikeout. I think we should be looking at singles and doubles.”
Boekenkroeger said rising construction costs increased the proposed new library’s cost over the past six years. He said the library’s conceptual design was used to get the MBLC grant.
Mattia said he is “struggling with the cost escalation rate.”
“We were at an $18 million construction cost in 2017 and now we are at $31 million,” said Mattia. “It’s a huge jump. The construction cost has way outpaced inflation.”