‘Back to the drawing board’ for Guilford Free Library
Trustees of the Guilford Free Library will meet later in June to consider next steps in the aftermath of a town revote that has thwarted a $1.2 million addition.

‘Back to the drawing board’ for Guilford Free Library

May 24 revote nixes proposed $1.2 million expansion by 30 votes

GUILFORD — After a March 1 Annual Town Meeting vote approved a $1.2 million expansion plan for the Guilford Free Library by just 15 votes (348–333), a re-vote on May 24 has nixed the plan by 30 votes, 405–375.

The revote came after 10 percent of the town's registered voters signed a petition requesting it. The article was exactly as first presented, asking for a $205,000 bond to help pay for the project and that the town reallocate $195,000 in money originally allocated to a water project that was paid for by funds from other sources.

Librarian Cathi Wilken says she's “disappointed, but not hopeless” following the revote.

“It's back to the drawing board because we still have a [space] problem. And trying to figure out what we can do that doesn't cost so much but still fills our needs,” Wilken said this week.

“We have to [find a way] because people use the library enough so that we're pretty crowded,” she added. “We have to figure out a way to make it all work.”

Why does she think the re-vote came to pass and reversed the initial vote?

“Frankly, I think people saw $1.2 million and didn't see anything else,” said Wilken. “It was partly tough timing.”

“I think if it had happened last year, it wouldn't be like this, but people are listening to the news and they just thought it was too much,” she added. “I didn't, but they did.”

Ostensibly, the project can still move forward, but not with the bond or using the leftover water project money.

“The outcome of the reconsideration vote means Guilford taxpayers will not use a bond to support expansion of the library,” said current Selectboard Chair Zon Eastes.

“The library board now has an opportunity to imagine how the project might go forward. The Selectboard does not have a direct role in planning the library's next steps,” Eastes said. “We all will learn about developments in the coming months.”

According to Eastes, the June 13 Selectboard agenda will include a discussion about the status of the $195,000 bond fund. “That money can be redirected from its original purpose only with the approval of Guilford's voters,” he said.

Could money in the bank fund a smaller project?

The Friends of the Guilford Free Library have raised $140,000 in donations, and, since 2018, residents have voted to set aside a total of $312,000 in the town's capital improvement and maintenance plan for library renovation and expansion.

That means the library has about $400,000 in hand.

“It's a good start,” said Wilken, adding library trustees “haven't discussed any details” yet but likely will do so at their meeting on Monday, June 20.

Wilken estimates the current 4,000-book collection - jammed into shelves so closely that when one pulls one out, several more come along for the ride - could have been doubled in the proposed plan.

The library is one of the oldest continuously operating public libraries in Vermont. It was founded in 1890 per a bequest from Cynthia King, who left money to the town to buy books with the caveat that the town also had to build or somehow acquire a building to keep them in.

That building was erected on land owned by William Barney for $300 and the Guilford Free Library opened on July 2, 1892, although historical annals indicate the town maintained a small, public library from 1790 to 1815.

The proposal had included a two-story addition on the back of the building with room for expansion and a room or two for private conversations or videoconferencing, plus an indoor activity space for children that could be accessed separately, even when the library was not open.

An elevator, restrooms, upgraded electrical and HVAC systems, and storage were also included, as were mandated code upgrades.

The plan included two additional accessible parking spaces at the lower level and new walkways, plus an entrance plaza and back patio with access to the activity area and yard.

The plan for the second floor of the two-story addition included cathedral ceilings with a lot of natural light and a central work area and in a high-performance envelope with energy-efficient equipment and ventilation. Wide fiber-cement siding and a new metal roof completed the plan.

At a Feb. 2 informational meeting via Zoom, a dozen or so residents heard and saw the plan to add about 2,000 square feet to the 1891 clapboard building and remove the about 100-square-foot addition built in 2004. Designer Isaac Wagner worked on the plan with architects Jeff Goldstone and Jack Byer of Goldstone Architecture in Bennington.

Wilken said she isn't sure if those same folks will be asked to return with a whittled-down proposal.

For one voter, a resounding 'no'

One voter said he voted “no” on the library expansion question both times and was glad that opponents organized a revote and prevailed.

Resident Alex Bell, a Brattleboro native who has lived in Guilford since 2004, said he “loves his neighbors” and knows “half of them are on the other side of the fence,” and that's OK with him.

Maybe they can afford higher taxes, said Bell, but he can't.

“It better be a really good reason why we're raising taxes, and I can't see it right now,” Bell said, noting his reasons for voting against the proposed expansion plan.

For one, he didn't agree with using “acquired funds from a previous project.”

“That should have been put into the general fund and not into a pet project,” he said.

“And the people who made the decision to use that money were only two people, Selectboard Chair Richard Wizansky and Town Administrator Peder Rude,” Bell added. “How did they get to be the ones to decide that?”

While the Selectboard and Finance Committee had supported the idea of using the water infrastructure money that has been in the bank for the town for 12 years, and Wizansky is a library trustee, using that money for a new purpose always had to be approved by town voters.

Bell also felt the timing imprudent to spend this much money on the library.

“There are no eyes on the current budget for the town trucks,” he said. “My budget for my own use for gas and diesel is gone. The town has to be looking at running out of money for diesel and maintenance because of the increase in prices for all this.”

“My tractor's fuel, grease, parts - everything - has gone up,” Bell continued. “That money could cover it. Every town in America is going to run short, every municipality. If you've got a vehicle, you're going to run short.”

“I could have been persuaded to vote for it but I wasn't on election day or on the re-vote,” he said. “There are just too many things right now.”

“This is a luxury,” he said. “We have a library and it's done a good job for a long time. We really don't need a new one quite yet.”

“Let's wait until the world calms down,” Bell said.