By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Town Meeting members overwhelmingly approved a multimillion dollar expansion and renovation project for the Shrewsbury Public Library Oct. 21. However, opponents say they are gearing up to defeat the proposal in the voting booth Tuesday Nov. 5.
Brian Austin of the Committee for a Smaller Library said he wasn's surprised by the Town Meeting vote.
“They always vote for everything,” Austin said, regarding Town Meeting members who he claimed are, in essence, deferring to voters in the special election. “It's exactly what we expected.”
The library article required a two-thirds majority in order to pass. Voters must now approve a debt exclusion specifically to raise and appropriate funds for the library project at a special election scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 5.
“Essentially, the message is to get out the vote,” Austin said. “It's a big decision.”
Opponents, including Austin, had tried to make the case that so-called “traditional” libraries are becoming obsolete due to the rise of eBooks available on tablets such as the Kindle or iPad.
The cost of the project is estimated at $23.3 million, $3 million less than previously estimated.
Taxpayers would be responsible for almost 60 percent of the cost at $13.6 million. The rest of the project would be paid for through an $8 million state grant and $1.75 million in fundraising.
Town Manager Daniel Morgado said the renovation will be funded in a way similar to that used in the construction of the new Sherwood Middle School, a project completed ahead of schedule and under budget.
The renovations for the library, built in 1903, would create a more efficient space for the public and staff, according to the Library Building Committee. The plan proposes 44 new computers, as opposed to the current building's 13 computers, and would be 38,600 total square feet as opposed to the existing 25,500. The project also aims to increase the number of parking spaces and expand seating options.
This will be the second time since 2011 that voters have been asked to fund a major library improvement project. Town Meeting members had approved a $19.2 million expansion project, but the proposal was later rejected in a special election.
Austin told Town Meeting members that voters in 2011 rejected that proposal as too big and too costly. However, he decried the current proposal as costing Shrewsbury taxpayers about $5 million more than the previous proposal.
“This is a very high-cost project with a high-cost impact,” Austin said, adding that the library would cause taxes to increase for the next 20 years.
Town Meeting member Benjamin Tartaglia said the town ought to have focused efforts on funding other needs, including the police and fire departments, as well as funding teacher salaries and municipal improvements, before undertaking the library project. The project, he said, “is too big, too costly, too regulated. It's too last-century.”
Proponents, however, said the library project is a long time coming. Town Meeting member Errol Ethier rejected the notion that the rise in downloaded eBooks makes libraries obsolete. Libraries, Ethier said, “are more than places to access books,” and said that use of Shrewsbury's library has “continued to significantly increase.”
“Libraries are still relevant,” Ethier said.
Matt Hogan, chair of the committee of library supporters, said it was important to pass the proposal on Nov. 5 to avoid driving up the cost of the project.
“Projects like this are what we do. We invest in our assets,” said Hogan. “Kicking the can down the road increases the costs.”