More library funding sought

The Reading Public Library, built in 1896.

The Reading Public Library, built in 1896.

With cost estimates tacking on another $3.4 million to proposed renovations of Reading’s public library, the town’s taxpayers will be asked to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for upgrades to the 118-year-old building.

Last Thursday night, Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly (109-13) to ask voters in the April 1 election to authorize another debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, that would add about $183 per year to average property tax bills for the next 10 years to cover the town’s portion of the costs.

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The referendum will be held one year after voters approved a similar request to fund the project with a temporary tax increase. Town and library officials said they understand recession-weary residents might be reluctant to approve more debt for the project, but they argue that it’s the most viable option to get it done.

“What is being proposed here is not something that the town will regret,” Nancy Twomey, a member of the Library’s Building Committee, told more than 120 residents who braved snow and sleet from Thursday’s nor’easter to vote on the article. “The money we are spending on this project will be well spent.”

The renovation project, which would upgrade the 31,000-square-foot facility and build a two-story, 7,596-square-foot addition, has been in the works for years.

Last April, town residents voted by a wide margin to authorize a debt exclusion that would add about $135 per year to property tax bills for the next 10 years. At the time, the town’s share was estimated at $9.8 million.

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners chipped in $5.1 million to help fund the renovations, contingent on the town securing funding for its share of the library project, previously estimated at a total of $14.9 million.

But final cost estimates have pushed the price tag to more than $18.3 million. Town officials said the costs increased largely as a result of the need for a new roof, which wasn’t included in the preliminary estimates; soft costs such as leasing a temporary building for use as the library until the 18-month project is completed; and the facility’s deteriorating condition.

“While it is not unusual for renovation costs for old buildings to increase when in-depth, detailed analysis is done, the magnitude of this increase is more than the built-in contingency funds can cover,” Alice Collins, a member of the Library Board of Trustees, wrote in a letter to town residents asking for support for the additional funding.

Town officials have asked for more state funding, but the request was denied.

Ruth Urell, the library’s executive director, said the renovations are needed to address structural issues with the building — which was once home to the Highland School and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places — while bringing the facility up to modern standards by adding more reading rooms, a new computer lab, and other amenities.

Built in 1896, the building at 64 Middlesex Ave. was converted into a library in 1984 but has since fallen into disrepair. The roof leaks, creaking wooden floors are buckling under the weight of thousands of books, and the facility’s aging electrical and lighting systems are a hodgepodge of parts.

Urell said the town has held dozens of meetings over the past several years to discuss options, including a new facility, and ultimately decided to preserve it.

“There was an overwhelming consensus from the community that they wanted to save this building and make it more modern and accessible,” she said. “We have a great design that takes care of a lot of the problems and issues while making significant improvements. And we’re just hoping to move forward.”

In January, detailed designs by Boston-based CBT Architects revealed a number of previously unknown — and costly — issues with the building. Among them: Extensive water damage to the building’s exterior masonry walls that will require repairs; a roof that needs to be completely replaced; a main floor that needs more support; and the need to bring the facility into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other state and federal requirements.

“Early conceptual design and assessments which were used to develop the state application, related cost estimates, and initial funding request approved by the town [were] limited in scope, given that the town was not prepared to invest in extensive research, expert professionals, and testing until project funding was certain,” a report by the library’s Board of Trustees stated. “Consequently, some items were omitted or insufficiently scoped.”

The town’s Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen both recommended increasing the debt instead of tapping into reserves or other funding sources, which they said would put too much of a burden on the town’s finances. Reworking the project to lower the town’s share of the costs also could jeopardize state funding.

“We could scrap the current project and go back to the drawing board, but there’s no way to know if the state will provide the funds,” David Hutchinson, chairman of the Library Board of Trustees, told Thursday’s Town Meeting. “And we would still have a library that needs a lot of work.”

If voters approve the additional funding in April, bids for the project would go out in late spring while construction would get underway sometime in August.

Christian M. Wade can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @cmwade1969.
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