A significant shift in favor of the Nov. 8 Falls Church bond referendum for the expansion and renovation of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library occurred following a public discussion at a forum last weekend.
Sunday’s forum hosted by the Falls Church chapter of the League of Women Voters made what could have been a very dry debate on the merits, or not, of passing a bond referendum next month to renovate and expand by 6,600 square feet the Mary Riley Styles Public Library.
But the discussion took the form of an “Oxford style” debate, with two protagonists at a podium on one side and two antagonists at a podium on the other and Keith Thurston, the moderator who fielded and asked the written questions from the audience, joined by a timekeeper.
The quick-moving format kept the attention of the three dozen who attended. It was informative and fast moving. One of the debaters took pains to remind the News-Press at the end of the proceeding that all four debaters drew lots to determine if they were to argue for or against the topic.
But the most interesting feature was the polling of everyone at the start of the debate on whether they were for, against or undecided about the referendum, which if approved by voters on Nov. 8 would authorize the City to borrow $8.3 million for the library’s needs. Then the same audience was polled again at the end to see if the debate had changed any minds.
So, at the conclusion of the meeting, local LWV president Martha Cooper announced that going in, 68 percent of attendees supported the bond, 22 percent opposed and 10 percent were undecided. The poll at the end, she then announced, had 80 percent in favor, 7 percent against and 11 percent undecided.
A major concern was the relatively vague language of the referendum itself, drafted by F.C. City Attorney Carol McCoskie and approved by the circuit court.
The language calls for authorizing no more than $8.7 million “to pay costs incident to renovating, constructing, expanding, reconstructing replacing in one or more locations, equipping, and/or re-equipping, in whole or in part, a public library including an archive/heritage center.”
It was explained that the language was intentionally unspecific in terms of identifying locations, for example, because of the unhappy experience with the November 2014 bond referendum that passed in F.C. for the expansion and renovation of the Mt. Daniel Elementary School.
When the Fairfax County Planning Commission balked on approving that project, the City had to delay it for a year while still paying interest on the bond because the bond had very specific language about the proposed project. The project was finally approved this August, so the original renovation and expansion plans for that effort will begin in earnest this coming June.
But as to the argument by opponents to the library bond that its vague language allows for the library to be relocated or split up, the Library Board’s Chet DeLong reminded the audience that $8.7 million is not enough to build on a new property and by law bond money can’t be used to rent.
The bond requires public approval next month because the City adopted a policy in the early 1990s that any single bond need that exceeds 10 percent of the annual operating budget of the City has to go to a public referendum. The provision does not apply to vital public safety needs, so that a bond to renovate the fire station in the mid-1990s did not require a referendum, nor will one to pay for a significant renovation and expansion of City Hall that will commence within two years.
The library bond is on the ballot next month because it just barely exceeds the 10 percent threshold as the size of annual F.C. operating budgets has surged past $80 million in recent years.
According to an official City of F.C. information sheet on the referendum, “The estimated cost of the approved project is $8.3 million based on the design prepared to date. The approved bond issue is $8.7 million to cover additional expenses such as bond issuance costs. If the bonds are issued at an interest rate of between 3.25 and 4 percent, the annual debt service cost for this project is projected to be between $599,000 and $641,000 per year for 20 years. Based on the 2016 assessed value, the required (real estate—ed.) tax increase would be 1.7 cents.”
Since its last renovation in 1994, the City’s population has swelled by 44 percent to near 14,000 and is projected to be 17,000 by 2033. Currently 79 percent of City residents have library cards and the library has in circulation over 148,000 items and a total of 470,000 items circulate in a year.
If the referendum is approved next month, the expansion and renovation will include making the library fully ADA compliant and accessible, public program space and public restrooms will be expanded, heating and cooling systems and lighting will be updated and made more efficient, an elevator will be replaced, and more study space will be provided.
There are no funds for added parking in this proposal, and that issue awaits what happens with the City Hall renovation across the street, for example.
Over 115 years old, the library was established at its current location (Park and N. Virginia) in 1953 when the building was gifted to the City by the Styles family on condition that it be maintained as a public library and keep its Williamsburg-style architecture.
“This library is more than books. It is continuing education for every resident of the City from the cradle to the grave,” argued Brad Gernand, a member of the Library Board who was part of the “pro-referendum” team at Sunday’s debate along with longtime City resident and former president of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) Mike Volpe.
Volpe argued that unlike the high school redevelopment project that is years away, this plan is ready now. He also noted the willingness of the Library Board to downsize its original request for a project costing twice as much.
On the “anti-referendum” side of the debate Sunday, former F.C. City Council member Johannah Barry said a “no” vote should not be construed as against the library, but against the vague language of the referendum, and that the $8.7 million price tag falls far short of the library’s actual needs. “We should go back to the drawing boards,” she said.
Barry’s “anti-referendum” partner David Gogul, also a VPIS board member, noted that the “elephant in the room” is the prospect of a $122 million price tag for a new high school, and suggested that repairs could be made to the library that would be more modestly priced and could be authorized without a referendum.
He also cited the rise of smartphones that may eclipse the need for libraries. However, Volpe said that while the demise of libraries has been predicted, “Ours is more popular than ever.”