Voters Tuesday overwhelmingly reject the library budget, but save the town Planning Department
| Emily Bader, Lakes Region Weekly |
NEW GLOUCESTER — In a highly debated special referendum, voters once again rejected the budget for the library, effectively shutting it down immediately and laying off its two librarians.
Voters Tuesday saved the town planner’s position, approving that department’s $60,046 budget 260-206.
The $96,026 New Gloucester Public Library budget was voted down 301-173. The defeat was a victory for library supporters, who knew rejecting the budget would close the library, but urged the no vote to put pressure on the Selectboard to increase the budget and bring it to yet another vote.
The vote eliminates the positions held by Library Director Suzan Hawkins and Assistant Librarian Carla McAllister, neither of whom could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Residents rejected the library and Planning Department budgets at the polls in July, giving the Board of Selectmen 60 days to revise them and put them back before voters.
Supporters of the library said last month that they wanted the assistant librarian’s hours reinstated to full time, a minimum of 36 hours per week, with benefits. For Tuesday’s vote, the Selectboard increased the assistant’s hours from 20 to 30 per week without benefits. The library director’s hours were cut from 40 hours a week to 36, with benefits.
In the first town budget proposal that went before voters in July, the $8 million budget’s appropriation to the library and planning departments were $87,860 and $60,046, respectively. The library director’s hours were cut from 40 per week to 36 with benefits and the assistant librarian’s position was cut from 40 to 20 hours without benefits.
The town’s $8,026,188 budget is down 0.53% from the 2019-2020 budget of $8.07 million.
In August, the Selectboard set this year’s property tax rate at $13.65 per thousand dollars of assessed property value, a 19.23%, or $3.25 decrease from last year’s tax rate of $16.90.
The owner of a $250,000 home in New Gloucester can expect to pay $3,412.50 in property taxes this year, $812.50 less than last year.
Supporters of the library, including Selectman Peter Bragdon, maintained that an increase to the assistant librarian’s hours would have a minimal effect on the tax rate.
“According to the (town) manager, the amount to restore hours and benefits is $18,000 more. We have been told that this will not affect the tax rate. It really makes sense to me to restore these funds,” Bragdon said via email last month.
Town Manager Brenda Fox-Howard warned residents at an Aug. 12 forum that defeating the library budget would mean the library would have no budget and the town would be forced to close it. Friends of the Library President Kathleen Potter said supporters were willing to take that risk to pressure the Selectboard into another vote.
“(Shutting down the library) is a very drastic measure,” Potter said Wednesday.
Many residents feel the Selectboard “backed them into a corner” to vote against the library budget, she said, “and it was a loud ‘no’ vote.”
Potter said she will request that the Selectboard use emergency funding to keep the library open until another vote could be called.
Selectboard Chairperson Karen Gilles said Wednesday that the only emergency funding she is aware of would have to come out of the undesignated fund, which requires a referendum.
“It’s really sad. I’m really sad about it. We had the librarian at tears last night,” Gilles said.
Hawkins has worked at the library for 38 years.
“She’s been there forever … That’s been her life and I’m heartbroken for her,” Gilles said.
McAllister has been the assistant librarian for the past 12 years.
Unlike with the July vote, the Selectboard has no obligation to put another library budget before voters.
“That would be totally up to the Selectboard. That would be at their choosing if they want to hold another election after the presidential election,” Fox-Howard said.
If the Selectboard decides not to redraft the library budget, the next opportunity for voters to weigh in will be with next year’s budget. Until a library budget is approved, the library will remain closed.
“The whole situation is just not pleasant. I wish better things for the town,” Fox-Howard said.
“We just can’t understand why the library has been the low-hanging fruit. They work hard,” Potter said at the end of August. “(It) just seems terribly unfair.”
The two librarians run several programs, such as book clubs, children’s story times and other activities.
At the Planning Department, Tuesday’s vote means Town Planner Scott Hastings will be able to keep his job. Voters in July rejected a budget cutting his hours from 40 to 36 per week with benefits, but approved that reduction Tuesday.
Hastings is the department’s only full-time employee and heads a bevy of committees, including the Planning Board, Comprehensive Plan Committee, Land Management Committee and Economic Development Committee.
“He is one of the smartest I’ve ever meet, he’s like a gem … It’s highly unusual and it would be a huge loss for the town,” Fox-Howard said.