Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Why the Library Referendum Should Pass

By Chet DeLong

The suggestions made by Ms. Godwin in the October 13 News-Press guest commentary raise several issues, some of which I will address here. First, she disagrees with City Council priorities – her privilege – but the City Council members have thought long and hard about the City’s bonding position as well as its priorities. So in considering the referendum vote, citizens need to accord reasonable weight to City Council and Planning Commission decisions.

For example, I (and others) disagreed with the Planning Commission decision to disapprove the Library Board’s “raze and rebuild” request, but understood and respected the Planning Commission’s concerns about the pending large bonding requests. The library board took the advice of the Planning Commission and worked with the $8 million suggestion, asking the consulting architects to provide a conceptual approach for that amount. The current proposal provides a concept with two options within that framework. A decision on which option to use will depend upon the actual engineering analysis.

Second, if the referendum is approved, funding of the library work would start in FY18; that will be 25 years after the building was renovated in 1992. Since then there has been a 44 percent growth in city population, and a concomitant growth in library patrons and programs It is past time to renovate and expand enough to accommodate our present and future patrons.

Since the renovations needed will trigger the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, some appreciable portion of the expansion will be devoted to meeting those guidelines. The rest will be used for children and young adult programs, the history collection, and study space, and to upgrade most of the building systems, including security and electrical systems. An added benefit will be the ability to alter sight lines to make it easier for staff to maintain oversight of activities.

Third, since it could be as much as two years before the schools get their needs properly assessed, scrutinized and approved by the Planning Commission and the City Council, their bonding referendum could not be any sooner. That bonding could require using up all or most of the City’s bonding authority for a 30 year bond. Until a major portion of that was paid off, no other appreciable bonding could be entertained. Thus, Ms Godwin’s comment that the Library could obtain $18+ million in five or 10 years is not even a remote possibility – it would be more like 20 years.

With respect to Ms. Godwin’s suggestions about placing pieces of the Library hither and yon, she blithely assumes that those other places would want the privilege, and she also assumes that there would be no problem with staffing all these pieces. Neither assumption is correct. In particular the schools have been very negative about having the Library on campus. Since 2008, the library has suffered staff cuts that have forced it to reduce hours on Wednesday and Sunday, and to close the history collection room except by appointment. Placing various parts of the library in various locations would require a minimum of two persons at each location for appropriate coverage. Assignments and rotation of staff would be a nightmare to administer. Besides, how many citizens would approve having to go to different locations for different pieces of the library? That is a totally unworkable idea.

Incidentally, I agree with Ms. Godwin that the “raze and rebuild” option is a better long term solution for the library, but the building and most of its systems are in such a poor state that the patrons should not have to wait another 20 years before there is improvement.

It is clear that the library serves as an important focus for early learning, for inculcating an early love for reading, and for supporting the City’s large foreign language-speaking contingent, in addition to its manifold circulation duties. Another point is that in a small city such as Falls Church, the library can be a central social focus point in the municipal campus. This is one reason the public response to moving the Library has consistently been extremely negative in all recent annual polls.

Further, the library has an independent Mary Riley Styles Library Foundation that has been raising money from library patrons and others since 2005. The foundation has a charter to supplement the City support of the library. It continues to provide many thousands of dollars to purchase equipment and materials. The foundation has just sent out a letter asking citizens to support the bond issue by voting “Yes” on the November 8 Library referendum.

It is important to note that these comments are those of an informed private citizen. Please, vote “Yes” on November 8.


Chet DeLong is the vice chair of the Mary Riley Styles Library Board of Trustees.