In a bi-partisan vote, the Blackstone Library project was adopted last night by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) after strong views were voiced by residents, virtually all of whom came to support the $5.2 million renovation. The vote was 15-11.
All the Democrats present for the two-hour meeting voted for the renovation, and so did a number of Republicans. Republican RTM member Robin Sandler, vice-president of the Blackstone Library Trustees, recused himself. Two RTM members were absent. The moderator only votes to break a tie.
It was standing room only in the community room of Fire Headquarters as Blackstone Library officials outlined their needs and goals for the renovation of the iconic library that sits in the heart of town.
While the vote was on bonding a $5.2 million renovation, the actual cost to town residents is about $3.4 million because a state library grant of $1 million will be provided now that the town has approved the project by March 1. Another $686,000 had been raised by residents and businesses. They expected the project would pass. The Branford Community Foundation provided a major grant as well.
Dissent against the project emerged at the outset when some Republicans representatives rose to speak. Jim Walker, who represents Stony Creek was opposed as was Rep. Peter Black, who represents Short Beach. Both were concerned with added taxes. Black said, “We will be adding debt and burden for a purely discretionary project.”
Kendall F. Wiggin, the state librarian, came to the RTM meeting to say why the Blackstone deserved the $1 million grant.
“We have a lot of competition for grants,” he said. “We must weigh the needs of the entire state. The Blackstone needs to become a 21st century library.” He said the community of Branford cares about “the kids in this town,” adding that the kids and teens need to have a “welcoming and accessible space….It is just not about books.” He said the state library board was impressed “with this project.”
Architects Peter Hentchel and Peter Jackson, both Democrats, spoke in favor of the project. When Jackson rose to speak, he said he didn’t know where to start. Referring to Rep. Black’s thoughts he wondered aloud if Black had taken the Kool Aid. “The library,” he observed, “is a treasure in this town.”
Democratic RTM Minority Leader Chris Sullivan stood to make comments in support of the library. Then he peered around the room. “We haven’t heard from our First Selectman. I ask through the (RTM) moderator for his opinion.”
First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove walked to the center of the room and told the legislators to “vote your conscience,” adding this “is not a political issue.” Cosgrove said he would support changes inside the library, including removing kids from the third floor. “Vote your conscience,” he repeated, avoiding answering Sullivan’s question on the first selectman’s position.
Frank Twohill (pictured), a Republican and chair of the RTM’s education committee, voted for the library expansion. So did his Republican colleagues, Anthony Alfone, Tricia Anderson and George D. Wells.
Ray Ingraham, the RTM Republican Majority leader, voted against it without saying why. Others voting against the library renovation included Marc Riccio, John F. Leonard, Donald Conklin and Sean Kelly.
Democrat Tom Brockett (pictured), who won election to the RTM in November, gave a strong speech on why the renovation was important.
He asked what the town’s investment of $3.4 million would mean to its residents, many of who are in need. Several people spoke about the poor in town, a category that the library opponents seemed to be ignoring.
“Thanks to the work of the Board and the architectural team, our citizens will be able to take advantage of a renovated library that will provide better space for young children, a new teen center, a vast expansion of technology, additional meeting space, increase programs and a more efficient library. In other words, it will bring our beautiful 19th century building into the 21st century.”
Democrat Clare Torelli, a long serving RTM member, told the audience that initially she had planned to vote against the library expansion. She said after listening to all the speakers, including those who use it daily, she had changed her mind. She would now vote in favor, she said.
Democrat Jessica Buchanan, also elected in November, said the library needs to become accessible for people with disabilities. “The people of Branford deserve it.”
The expansion includes fixing the access problem in the rear of the building.