Augusta voters will be asked in a referendum this election year to “save Lithgow Library.”
In 118 years, only one addition has been built to the city’s educational resource and cultural community center, and that addition was inadequate.
Lithgow Library stands at the crossroads. There is a critical need for restoration and expansion of this historically significant, publicly owned asset. Lithgow could be lost if the referendum fails.
For many years, our library has remained on a waiting list for funding while health and safety issues remain unresolved. The library is noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Entry doors, bathrooms and the obsolete elevator all need to be replaced in order to comply.
Space limitations cause overcrowding. Thousands of books and media pieces are shelved on window sills. Roof leaks have caused damage to books, records and supplies. There is no meeting room for children or teens. Kids and adults stand in line to use computers with no Wi-Fi access.
Daily patronage usage and attendance at various library programs increases every year and are now at all-time highs. This architectural masterpiece, dating back more than a century, is in danger, at the very time that it is most in demand.
Lithgow can become a technology center, as all segments of our population discover and use the liberating power of computers in visits to the library.
If the renovation project does not go forward, deterioration will continue, and just maintaining the status quo will cost too much.
Leaders of the community have stepped forward. Friends of Lithgow have been engaged in a vigorous capital campaign. Almost $2.5 million has been raised so far, with a total $3 million in sight.
Private contributions were the missing link a few years ago, and undoubtedly the reason the bond issue referendum failed by 240 votes.
Now that the private contributions are there, and fundraising is ongoing, it is time for the City Council to step up to the plate with its commitment (the difference needed after private contributions) and to send a new bond issue to the voters.
Plan reductions of $1.2 million will be identified, and, with at least $3 million in private donations and $500,000 already earmarked by the council for the project, voters will be asked to approve a total bond issue for the difference — likely around $7 million.
The effect on taxes depends upon bond issue interest rate and length of repayment terms, but with some creative financing and ongoing fund raising, any taxpayer impact will be mitigated and small.
There will never be a better time to borrow money: Augusta’s bond rating is excellent, interest rates are at historic lows, and other bonds will mature by 2018, eventually releasing $2 million for any new bond payments, such as Lithgow, the first bond payment for which would not be due until 2015.
The time is now. As construction costs continue to rise, it will cost more to keep Lithgow’s doors open, under worsening conditions, than it will to float the bond issue and finally do the work that is necessary to restore and modernize our library.
There should be no higher goal for Augusta, or any community, than literacy and learning. The city cannot afford to lose a key educational element for thousands of its residents.
In other communities where referenda have been held for library restoration and modernization, the approval rate generally runs 66 percent to 34 percent. In cases where modification of facilities were necessary on behalf of the handicapped, the pass rate was 100 percent. Communities generally in support of education measures voted in favor of library referenda 75 percent to 25 percent.
Private support is there, public support is needed. Since Lithgow Library is a city-owned public building, it is the council’s responsibility to act now. In the wake of Mayor Bill Stokes’ ringing endorsement on Thursday night, and apparent unanimous council support, we believe the voters of Augusta will approve a reasonable investment this time. The alternative would mean the loss of millions of private dollars raised and committed toward financing a bond issue, and potential future loss of our library.
A proud city should have a modern library. Do it now for the kids.
(Source of statistics: University of California at Berkeley. Library Referenda: Determinants of success and failure.(86 elections). Institute of Governmental Studies. Working paper 96-7.)
Don Roberts is a former city councilor and vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta. He is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District, and a representative to the Legislative Policy Committee of Maine Municipal Association.