A balancing act is going on right now between the need to be watchful of a limited pool of taxpayer dollars, and the necessity for preserving a historic and valuable community resource.
I’m talking about the current request to fund $3.1 million to make repairs on the Peabody Institute Library, a historic landmark downtown that was given to the city in 1852 by native son and world-renowned philanthropist George Peabody. Since then, it has been a treasured resource for the community and in 1973 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, we come to our dilemma.
Being that it is a 161-year-old structure, continuous repair costs are soaring, and they are soaring during days of dwindling state aid to cities and towns, and an already increasing tax burden on the middle class citizenry of working class Peabody.
Making matters more complicated are the current infrastructural needs all over the city. Among the largest projects are the tens of millions to be spent on a flood mitigation plan for Peabody Square, and a $40-plus million dollar (and much-needed) new middle school.
Complicating matters further are those in the community, and on the City Council, who feel that brick and mortar libraries are nearing obsolescence in a big data world where almost everything is available electronically, and where there are more personal electronic devices than there are toothbrushes.
But … can we afford as a society to just abandoned brick and mortar libraries?
Of course not.
If I were on the City Council, my vote on the $3.1 million would be “yes.” But my yes vote would come with conditions. I think some people have misunderstood Councilor Jim Liacos’ use of the phrase “money pit” during the recent debate on funding of the repairs. I haven’t spoken to Jim about this, but I think what he might be saying is, OK, we’ll approve the $3.1 million now, but can we please take a more extensive look at the future of the library and come up with a plan that ensures the building is sustainable from the standpoint of what the community can afford?
That doesn’t mean that we should ever consider bringing in the wrecking ball on a building of such historic significance. After all, I don’t think the citizens of Mount Vernon would knock down Washington’s farm house just because it was too expensive to maintain.
But what it does mean is a sensible master plan when it comes to refurbishment and ongoing maintenance. In other words, if we spend $3.1 million today, let’s hope it doesn’t mean another $3.1 million next year, and the year after that. After all, it was only two years ago that we spent another $3.1 million to fix the HVAC system.
If it meant that it could operate without further cost and within its annual budget for the next 20 years, I actually believe the taxpayers would warm up to spending even more on the library now. Maintenance would obviously then be the key factor, and at this point it should trouble taxpayers that many of these current repairs are being requested for a wing of the building that’s only about 40 years old. If we did an even larger renovation now, might we also be able to tap into some historic preservation funds, or perhaps, solicit some help from the private sector?
The bottomline, though, is – even in the age of smart phones, tablets, and data constantly at our fingertips – the main branch library needs to remain what it is now: A valuable community asset.
By the way, before the City Council takes this vote, I hope all 11 city councilors will tour the library to see what we’d be getting for our tax dollars. Library Director Martha Holden invited the entire council for a tour this week, and only four of them showed up. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt that the remaining seven didn’t show because of conflicts. But let’s hope they will tour on their own before voting to bond for the $3.1 million.