Heated meeting, and few answers, anger residents at library board meeting
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | May 07,2013
BELLOWS FALLS — Tempers were short Monday as the trustees of the Rockingham Free Public Library were sharply criticized by about three dozen members of the public for solving the financial problems from the stalled renovations at the library “on the backs of the employees.”
The library trustees last week voted 4-2 to close the library building for two months during the final surge of renovations and move a reduced slate of library services to another, handicapped-accessible location. The trustees said they hoped to save money, but that the biggest concern was being compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Most of the 10-member staff will either be laid off or have their hours reduced, under the plan endorsed by the majority of the board.
But the decision to close the building was far from unanimous, and members who were absent from last week’s vote pushed to table any further decisions until more information was available.
Jan Mitchell-Love, chairwoman of the library trustees, said she had been told The Waypoint Center in downtown Bellows Falls would be available for the temporary but smaller library.
The library trustees are hoping to move library services into the town-owned center, but interim Town Manager Willis “Chip” Stearns said after the meeting The Waypoint Center could not be used for municipal functions not related to tourist-oriented activities.
Mitchell-Love said concerns about handicapped accessibility, and the push to save money, was behind the library board’s decision.
The library under construction has lost its elevator, and a lift is also not working. To repair it would be cost prohibitive for just two months. The new elevator is expected to be completed in July.
The meeting was marked by sniping between board members, the public and, at one point, the husband of the library director joined in.
Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake got involved, warning members of the public to be quiet since public comments were closed.
Members of the public — including former library trustees — urged the board to stay in the library building during the last four months of renovations and not to layoff any staff or cut back services.
To do so, in the words of former longtime library trustee Robert Hewitt, would damage the library for years to come by losing its dedicated staff. Assembling the staff has been a hard-fought success, he said.
Adding more angst to the situation, the library board later went behind closed doors to discuss the library’s staff, after some trustees spent more than two hours criticizing Library Director Celina Houlne.
Houlne said she had a plan that while it would reduce staffing this summer, no one would have to be laid off, since people would take their vacation during the months in question.
Houlne also said there were savings in operational costs because of the delay in completion of the library renovation.
Stearns said after the meeting that the Waypoint Center was built with federal funds for the stated purpose of promoting tourism in the Connecticut River Valley and hosting a library for two-plus months would mean the town was in violation of the grant and might have to pay back the funds.
Stearns, who attended the at-times tumultuous meeting held at the Village Bookstore, was not asked by Library Trustee Chairwoman Jan Mitchell-Love to speak and he kept his peace until asked by reporters after the meeting.
The Rockingham Select Board is scheduled to take up the request to use The Waypoint Center at its meeting tonight, Stearns said.
Stearns said the recent rental of the Waypoint Center to Cider Magazine was a violation of the town’s grant, and he said the town “was lucky” that no federal official called the town on it. The earlier usage by the Greater Falls Chamber of Commerce fit into the tourism requirement.
The center, which is located on The Island in downtown Bellows Falls, is currently vacant.
Mitchell-Love and Deb Wright, vice-chairwoman of the library board, said the center could be used for two months without any violation of federal grant. Wright pointed to the rental to Cider Magazine is proof that the town could be flexible.
Mitchell-Love and the library have been on the hot seat since December, when Baybutt Construction Co., the firm selected to perform the $2.3 million renovation project at the historic library, stopped paying subcontractors, who walked off the job. Subcontractors filed suit against the town and Baybutt, claiming they were owed more than $700,000, money the town said it had paid Baybutt. But since then, Baybutt has filed for bankruptcy, leaving little hope for the town recouping the money anytime soon.
Making things worse, it was discovered that Baybutt didn’t take out a performance and payment bonds for the project, despite Rockingham paying for them.
Since then, the Rockingham Select Board have taken over management of the renovation project from the trustees since the town owns the library building. The trustees are in charge of running the library and its staff.
But Mitchell-Love ruled a motion by fellow trustee David Buckley, to seek the “advice and consent” of the Rockingham Select Board, as well as the staff, about closing the library building, was out of order, even after Buckley agreed to just limit it to “advice.”