Questions raised about smaller footprint for Southington library

SOUTHINGTON — Despite planning a smaller library than initially proposed, town leaders believe they can accommodate the entire book and DVD collection as well as have the program space they want.

Library and town government officials have been reviewing designs with the architect tasked with planning a new library that will cost no more than the $17 million approved by voters.

When initial schematics were drawn up prior to last year’s referendum, town leaders believed they could build nearly 30,000 square feet of library space for that sum. That’s no longer possible according to Jim Morelli, a Town Council Republican and the library building committee chairman. Inflation and building cost increases mean the town can only afford a library of around 24,000 square feet.

The current 1970s-era structure is 21,000 square feet. Library leaders say it’s inadequate for nearly everything and doesn’t meet current handicap accessibility codes.

On Wednesday, the library board met to discuss reducing the library’s book and DVD collection in the new building which would free up space for programming. That would have meant putting a portion of the collection into storage rather than keeping it on shelves.

Tina Riccio, library board chairwoman, said she doesn’t believe that will be necessary after seeing new architectural plans that she described as “amazing.”

“We don’t have to reduce anything and we can still have the community space,” Riccio said.

That community space can be for library programs, meetings, concerts and a host of things that bring people to the library. Riccio said it’s a building she hopes everyone will use.

“Our strategic plan is to get everybody into the library,” she said.

Concern over building size

Alica Novi, one of a half-dozen speakers at Wednesday night’s meeting, said the town should go back to voters for more money. While recommending the project to residents, town leaders had preliminary plans for a larger library than what’s now available for $17 million.

“It’s not what they asked the public to vote for in the referendum at all,” she said. “I’d like to see them to go and do their due diligence before they say, ‘We can’t build a building the size we told you.’”

While a requirement to build a 30,000 square foot library isn’t part of the referendum approved last year, Novi said it’s clearly what voters wanted when they supported spending money on the library. While the original plans showed an increase of nearly 40 percent over the existing building, the latest plans are only a 15 percent increase in size.

“I hope they do what the town asked for,” Novi said.

State grant

Morelli said his next step is to contact the State Library Board to see about saving a $1 million library construction grant. The plan was presented to the public for the referendum and also used for that grant application. If the library size is reduced by 10 percent or more, the state library will likely rescind the grant according to Morelli.

He’s hoping state library leaders will see that inflation costs caused the building size decrease and that there’s a way to preserve the grant. That state money would offset local funds and wouldn’t increase the total cost of the project.

To keep on track with the grant, the town needs to have preliminary plans by Sept. 1.

“We’re really running out of time to be in line with the schedule,” Morelli said.

He didn’t think it feasible to ask for more money but said he’s considering cost and space saving suggestions such as keeping the old building for storage. Any new building could be added on to in the future.

“My goal would be to give the most functional, flexible, convertible space we can build,” Morelli said.

Preserving the collection

Riccio said more than two dozen people attended Wednesday’s meeting, an unusually large crowd for that board. Many were librarians concerned about cuts to the collection.

While the issue is likely now moot, Riccio said the board had considered moving books to storage that hadn’t been circulated frequently or at all in recent months. Another option was to take certain collections and partner with schools or the Calendar House to keep them on display at another location.

Riccio said there was a worry about children’s books, but reducing their number was never considered.

“We absolutely will not reduce the children’s books,” she said.

Riccio said there was also misinformation about what the library board was considering.

“I think there was some confusion that we were going to cut books and get rid of books,” she said. “That was not our purpose, that was not ever the plan.”

More money for the project?

Chris Poulos, a library board Democrat, said the town should hold a well-publicized public hearing on the size reduction to the library plans.

“The fact is, the town voted to spend $16.9 million for a 29,900 square foot library that would both accommodate our current collection and allow for an updated design and use of space,” Poulos said. “In my view, in an effort to ensure transparency, any significant changes to the original proposal need to be vetted through a public hearing.”

Poulos is running for the 81st state House district seat. Tony Morrison, a Republican and Board of Finance member, is opposing him.

Morrison said the town does have sources of money, such as town and school surpluses as well as infrastructure costs offset by pandemic relief funds. He was open to the possibility of using more town money for the library project but wanted that decision to come to the voters at a referendum.

He didn’t want to increase taxes for the project, however. Morrison said the impact on residents, particularly those on a fixed income, would be too damaging.

“The one option we don’t have right now is to raise taxes because of inflation,” Morrison said. “That I don’t think that is an option for us.”

Meeting rescheduled

The library board’s meeting was originally scheduled for Monday but was canceled after the meeting location was left off the agenda, according to Riccio. After hearing that there was a crowd of concerned librarians and residents looking to speak, she said the meeting was planned for Wednesday at the John Weichsel Municipal Center.

Riccio said despite the oversight and meeting change, a good crowd came out and showed interest in the library and the collection in particular.

“I was excited to see people so passionate about the books,” she said.

[email protected]: @JBuchananRJ

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