AUGUSTA — Residents overwhelmingly approved a bond to expand and renovate Lithgow Library Tuesday.

Voters approved a proposal to borrow $8 million to nearly triple the size of the city’s historic public library by a vote of 2,153 to 461, an 82 percent margin of victory.

“I’m thrilled for the city of Augusta, it’s finally going to get the library it deserves,” said Elizabeth Pohl, library director. “I’m inspired by the people who worked so hard on this, it was an amazing experience. And also happy for the staff, for hanging in there, and city government, for crafting a financial package that works.”

The $8 million bond will be paired with private money raised and pledged to expand and renovate the library.

The private Friends of Lithgow fundraising campaign has raised about $1.5 million in cash and $2.3 million in cash and pledges. The group expects to have $2 million in cash, and $3 million in combined cash and pledges, in hand by the time the project goes out to bid to help pay for the estimated total cost of $11.7 million.

Wick Johnson, co-chairman of the fundraising campaign, said the group expects $4 million in pledges before fundraising is done. He anticipates that the city and residents making a commitment to the project, and showing it with their votes, will help spur a new round of donations after the vote.

Voters in 2007 rejected, by 243 votes, the first bond proposal seeking to address similar building problems.

“In ’07 the community wasn’t behind the project, it needed to be a community project,” Johnson said after hearing of the landslide victory Tuesday night. “And what has happened now is everybody has decided what their piece is. Augusta wasn’t entitled to a new library but it deserves a new library. The way it got it was for everybody to come on board with it.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said construction would likely start next spring, and take between 12 and 24 months to be fully complete.

It’s not likely to start before then because, he said, it will take roughly six months for a full architectural design and the bid process to be completed. The bids would likely be opened in the winter, with groundbreaking in the spring.

The next step, with the bond now approved, will be for city councilors to authorize funds to hire an architect to develop full plans and bid documents, Bridgeo said Tuesday.

Amanda Bartlett, president of the Friends of Lithgow Library, said the landslide victory was even better than they’d expected.

“It showed this community has really come together, all in support of Lithgow,” she said. “The huge momentum and support from voters and the private donors has really given us that base of support, a public-private partnership that didn’t exist before. This is a community built on philanthropy, it’s amazing we can make these things happen.”

The renovation and expansion will nearly triple the size of the library. It will also address numerous issues at the library, including an obsolete elevator not accessible by people in some wheelchairs and not up to Americans with Disabilities standards; a still-leaky roof; safety and security concerns because of staff not being able to view or monitor the main entrance; an inefficient and obsolete heating and ventilation system; and the overriding issue of just not enough room for books, computers, programs and people.

Lithgow’s elevator was installed as part of the boxy and unattractive addition stuck onto the original structure in 1979 and is so obsolete that the manufacturer no longer makes parts for it.

The lack of space in the library, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is behind many of the building’s issues.

With only so much space available, collections of books are stacked so close together, some within 28 inches of other stacks, there isn’t enough room for people to even turn around in the stacks.

Books are stacked along window sills, because there’s no other space for them to go.

Because there is so little room, the library has only a few computers available for use by the public, four for adults and three for children.

Pohl said by current standards a library serving a population of Augusta’s size should have at least 25 to 30 computers for use by the public.

A financing plan put together by Bridgeo and Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, would allow the city to bond the library project without requiring a property tax increase.

The bond proposal was for a total bond amount of $15.6 million, with $8 million for the library and $7.6 million to refinance existing city employee pension debt the city already owes.

Bridgeo said arrangements for a temporary library for when construction is underway are not yet in place but he anticipates talking to Hannaford about leasing its old store on Willow Street as a temporary library. He said the city needs a building that would be relatively close to the downtown, accessible by people with disabilities, and have an open floor plan

“We don’t have a lot of money in the budget to provide for fitting out a building we’re only going to be in for two years,” Bridgeo said. “It will be a bit of a logistical challenge, as well, to totally relocate the library. That may take some time.”

Lithgow supporters noted usage of the library is at an all-time high, with 133,500 visits last year. A study released in February found that 87 percent of library card-holders are Augusta residents, with non-residents paying a fee for their cards. The study found 11,300 Augusta residents, or 60 percent of the population, have library cards.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj