By Kathryn G. Menu
Last Wednesday, Catherine Creedon, director of Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library, explained to her board of trustees that they will need to find a way to finance the rent on a temporary space. This comes in the wake of a depleted reserve account as well as an ongoing review of a proposed expansion which has tied up close to $10 million in public funding.
After Creedon spoke, trustee Carl Peterson looked across the library rotunda and sighed.
Last June, school district voters overwhelmingly approved the $10 million expansion of the historic library building, which they will pay for over the next 20 years. But faced with yet another hurdle in what has become the arduous task of getting approval for the expansion plans, library trustees have, in recent weeks, been looking for solutions to a bevy of problems as they plan for next year’s budget — including the prospect of spending another winter in a building in dire need of repair.
Since October, the library expansion plan has been in front of the Sag Harbor Village Planning Board for review. The proposed 7,725 square-foot, three-story modern expansion would more than double the size of the current library, which would also undergo crucial repairs and historic restoration as part of the plan.
Last month, the planning board announced it would require the library to complete an extensive environmental review on the project, which is expected to begin at the July 27 planning board meeting. Until the planning board signs off on that review, however, the library is unable to access the publicly approved financing for the project through the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), a lending agency often used by public institutions.
In the meantime, according to Creedon, though the library’s operating budget is secure, its reserve accounts are all but tapped, having been used to pay for planning, legal, and architectural fees associated with the project.
Creedon explained that financially, the library has just $195,000 left in its reserve accounts, with $25,000 restricted for special projects. Creedon said the library expects a third of the second half of tax monies from the Sag Harbor School District in the next two months — around $350,000 — half of which is earmarked for the operating budget, and 45 percent of which can be used towards the expansion.
On Tuesday, Creedon stressed that she and the board appreciate the work the village has done to move the project towards approval and the time spent on the review by planning board members, their counsel and planners.
Due to the expected length of the planning board’s review, in addition to approvals needed from the village’s historic preservation and architectural review board, zoning board of appeals, village trustees and the Suffolk County Board of Health, the process is taking longer than expected. While trustees hoped to move into a temporary space this fall and begin construction, its contractors – Sandpebble Builders – now estimate the library will not be able to break ground until next spring.
This has left the board of trustees, and Creedon, with the task of figuring out how to continue to finance the review of the project in the wake of dwindling reserves and the inability to access referendum monies. It also raises the specter of surviving another winter in a building full of cracks, leaks and a furnace and septic system on their last legs.
Making problems worse, according to Sandpebble, material costs for construction, as well as interest rates, are on the rise, meaning delays on the project will result in a more costly expansion in the long run.
Trustees also learned last week that funding for a temporary space — possibly in the Graphic Arts building on West Water Street — cannot come from DASNY. That’s because rent, even in a temporary space, is considered an operating expense and not an expense associated with the project.
Creedon said it is the board’s hope to make a separate application for village approval for the temporary space as well as approval for repairs to John Jermain Memorial Library.
“While we might have had sufficient capital reserves to pay that rent, the duration of the permitting process has exhausted those reserves,” said Creedon on Monday, leaving the library board to debate whether it should seek funding for the temporary space in its proposed budget.
“The budget has been very tough this year, because so much is unknown,” said Creedon on Tuesday. “It has made it very difficult and the easiest way to address this is to write up a generous budget, but this is simply not the era for it.”
Creedon said she was working with the board this week on the proposed spending plan, which is expected to be presented sometime next week and must be adopted by the board before July 1.
“We are very conscious of the economy,” she said. “We want to present a budget that is doable for patrons and the community. I think the library is always a great value, but we want to make sure we are not unrealistic in what we put forth to the public, even if it means we have to look over certain costs that would make it easier for us to construct this budget given what remains up in the air.”
In addition to a barely operable furnace, the library has a handful of dead trees on its property it hoped to remove during construction that Creedon said may need to be addressed, for safety reasons, before another autumn of stormy weather. The stained glass in the rotunda has several loose panels and is leaking badly, she added, which is another immediate concern. Paying for these repairs outside of the scope of the building project is not something trustees wanted to do, as it will prove more costly than if they were wrapped up in the building project.
“We are trying to balance the care of the building, the safety of our patrons with the reality of the economy and unknowns about our immediate future,” said Creedon.