It’s been a few years since Augusta voters rejected a previous Lithgow Library referendum. Meanwhile, studies have found that usage at Lithgow and at libraries throughout our nation have increased to all-time highs.

Augusta’s publicly owned library, however, continues to deteriorate.

The library, which is not in compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, is at serious risk, but that will change soon, if the Friends of Lithgow realized their goals.

These volunteers have created an unique private-public partnership, with hundreds of supporters contributing toward costs of restoration and modernization of our city’s historic library.

A couple of months ago, working with Friends co-Chairman Charles “Wick” Johnson, of Augusta, and others, we helped author a proposal leading to a bond referendum. The proposal, designed to Save Lithgow Library, begins with commitment to identify a 10 percent reduction ($1.2 million) in the cost of saving and modernizing the library and includes $3 million in contributions to be provided by the Friends.

Augusta’s mayor and City Council enthusiastically and unanimously endorsed the proposal.

THE PLAN

The original cost to renovate and expand the library was estimated to be $11.7 million. Identifying $1.2 million in cost reductions lowers the cost to $10.5 million. The Friends will provide $2 million and a previously dedicated council account will provide another $500,000.

Residents, therefore, will vote Tuesday on an $8 million bond issue. An additional $1 million Friends pledge, to be collected after the referendum, is anticipated to lower the final amount necessary to be amortized to $7 million.

FINANCING

Recognizing the urgent need at the publicly owned Lithgow Library, City Manager Bill Bridgeo and Finance Director Ralph St. Pierre created an ingenious approach to combine refinancing (at historic low interest rates) of an existing pension obligation bond with the cost of restoring and modernizing our library.

“The need is great at the library, doing nothing is no longer an option,” Bridgeo said.

Thanks to the work of Bridgeo and St. Pierre, this council-sponsored bond issue referendum, if approved by voters, will not raise taxes, now or for the life of the bond.

BONUS

Additionally, $200,000 saved from an interest payment on the pension obligation bond will go to reducing this year’s budget. This would not have been possible if the referendum and refinancing had been postponed to November. This annual savings also will be available for the life of the bond, and can be applied to cover the eventual increase in library operating expenses.

As at-large Councilor Dave Rollins said, “Augusta will never see an opportunity like this again. The return that we will get on this investment is sensational, and we can save the library.”

In effect, what is being proposed, Bridgeo noted, is an opportunity for the city to refinance some debt at an extremely advantageous rate, just as so many of us individuals have done in order to produce the money needed to maintain, renovate and repair our homes. Augusta can restore historic Lithgow, transforming it into a technological community center, serving our children and the needs of the many who depend upon the library. Sixty percent of Augusta residents hold a Lithgow Library card, and 49 percent of Lithgow computer users are low-income residents.

A “yes” vote on Tuesday on the Augusta bond issue referendum, will be a truly worthwhile investment for generations to come and a shining example of successful collaboration between government and private sources. Something of which we need more.

I’m confident that next Tuesday, the voters of our proud community will “save” Augusta’s historic, publicly owned Lithgow Library. We can’t afford to lose it.

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.


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