Questions remain over Wadleigh rejection

MILFORD – Library officials are trying to figure out why voters rejected their plans for a new building for the second year in a row, despite a public outreach campaign that shows the current building is too small, inefficient and in overall bad shape. The $5.6 million project did not get a majority vote, let alone the 60 percent needed, and did worse than last year, with almost 500 additional negative votes.

So far, the general agreement is that voters were determined not to raise taxes. Both the town and school operating budgets were rejected for the second year in a row, and so were three public works vehicles and a $3 million bond for improvements to the schools.

"Nearly everything with a high price tag was voted down," library Director Michelle Sampson said. For the new Wadleigh Memorial Library building, that was despite open houses and other outreach efforts. Selectmen’s Chairman Mark Fougere agrees the chief reason the bond was voted down was money, pointing to the significant number of negative votes on the town and school ballots.

Money was "the common thread," Fougere said. Selectmen did not recommend the library article, having voted 4-1 against it, citing their concern about taxes. But some articles the board recommended were shot down, and Fougere said he feels the trustees’ frustration.

"I’ve been there," he said, remembering the years it took to pass bonds for the ambulance building and the police station. "It’s always taken time" for a large bond to pass. Board Vice Chairman Gary Daniels said the selectmen recognize the need for a new library, but there were too many money items on the ballot this year, and there has to be more discussion of capital improvement priorities. Library "trustees did a good job in showing the building’s deficiencies," he said. "It just comes down to the matter of money. … The message from the people seems to be we don’t have an endless source of money." Fougere doesn’t like the design for the proposed library building, calling it sterile and institutional, and suspects its appearance was one factor that led to the bond’s rejection, but not the main factor.

"It doesn’t have to look like the building has been here for 400 years," he said, but the design should complement the downtown. Sampson said there have been several changes to the design based on feedback, including a dramatic change to the roof line, and so far there are no plans for more major changes.

"It is impossible to design a building that all 15,000-plus residents can agree upon," she said in an email last week. "We tried to do the next best thing, however, by holding our first four open houses with our architect present so he could hear feedback firsthand from residents." As for now, library trustees are trying to deal with the existing building’s defects and have asked facilities manager Joel Trafford to create a prioritized list of what needs to be done.

Although a new building with new systems is considered the most economical solution, trustees Co-Chairwoman Jennifer Hansen said trustees might ask the town for money for repairs next year and might continue their outreach efforts with online surveys. The Wadleigh Memorial Library was built in two sections, in 1950 and 1980, and Trafford gave tours during the open houses showing rotting windows, damaged ceilings, basement water, old plumbing and other systems that need to be replaced. The newer portion of the building is considered in worse shape, and in 1995, trustees began submitting plans for an expanded library to the town’s Capital Improvement Plan Committee.

Along with the defects, the facility is considered out of date, needing more quiet study areas, meeting spaces, a bigger children’s room, and spaces for business use, senior citizens and teenagers.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.