The main branch of the Schenectady County library system will be closed for 18 months during the expansion project, library trustees said Wednesday.
In a vote April 24, the trustees agreed to shut down the bustling library because the project could be done more quickly and would cost much less with the building closed. The building could be closed as early as June, although some county legislators have discussed delaying the entire project because of its cost.
The project would take a year longer if the library were kept open, Board of Trustees President Esther Swanker said. It would also cost an additional $1 million to $1.5 million on top of the original $7.7 million budget, she said.
“It would be much more expensive and much more time-consuming,” she said.
The trustees also decided it would be too expensive to move some library resources to a temporary location that could be used by library patrons during the project.
One option was to spend $500,000 turning the top floor of the Carl Company Building into a library.
“That’s not a wise expenditure,” Swanker said. “We have nine branches. This is an excellent chance to put them to very good use.”
But not all the trustees are happy with the decisions.
Trustee John Karl said the project simply cannot go forward with such a long closure.
“Closing the library for that period of time would be unacceptable,” he said.
Karl said no one knew that the library would be closed until the clerk of the works, Anthony Ward, took a look at the plans two weeks ago.
“He said this design would not be practical to achieve without closing the library for 18 months,” Karl said. “When he saw the plans, he said, ‘We can’t keep it open.’”
The news came as a shock to trustees and county legislators.
“None of us saw this coming,” County Legislator Karen Johnson said. “But we should have. We’re talking about HVAC, electricity … there will be times the building will be without electricity.”
Legislator Vincent DiCerbo added that although he had no idea the project would require such a long closure, the work must be done.
“HVAC, electricity — that absolutely has to be done. For 30 years the county skimped on maintenance,” he said. “If the library has to be closed, I don’t see we have any other choice.”
Staffers will be able to get into the building during construction, so Swanker envisions an interlibrary loan system that would allow residents to request main branch books and receive them days later at one of the other branches. The same system could work for the main branch’s large collection of audio books, videos and DVDs. Staffers are designing the operations plan now, Swanker said.
But Karl and others aren’t ready to give up yet.
“The branches are not suitable to absorb much at all of our programs and services,” Karl said.
So the Friends of the Library and library staff met Tuesday night to discuss temporary library sites downtown. County Legislator Gary Hughes, chairman of the Committee on Libraries and Education, said he’s hoping sites could provide Internet access and meeting space for the many programs the library offers each week.
The semi-annual Friends of the Library book sale may be moved to City Hall, he said. Among the other sites discussed were the Carl Company Building, which could be used at much less cost if it isn’t turned into a full-fledged library, and the Annie Schaffer Senior Center, which has been closed for four years and might need substantial work.
Karl said “We’re trying to keep the services downtown. A majority of the people who access our library are people who live in and around the areas. Many of them come on foot. That’s a big concern — we have 1,400 people a day. What are you going to do with them?”
Hughes later said that 10 percent of the patrons at the main branch come from the 12305 ZIP code, the immediate area of the library, while 90 percent come from areas also served by branches. The majority drive when visiting the main branch.
Hughes wants to find downtown sites for the library’s popular lunchtime, evening and weekend programs, but emphasized that he doesn’t support opening the library during the construction.
“I can’t emphasize strongly enough that it’s for the safety of the patrons,” he said. “This will be an active construction site. The asbestos, turning the power on and off … it really would not be a safe location.”
The project went out to bid this week, Karl said. County officials had previously announced that construction could begin as early as June if the project gets reasonable bids.
The price tag is expected to be $7.7 million, but the county faces a budget shortfall of at least $5 million in 2009. Legislators are seeking ways to reduce costs and increase revenues without resorting to tax increases; some have discussed delaying the start of several major construction projects, such as the library expansion, as a way to reduce costs next year. There is also talk about closing library branches and reducing nonmandated services.
The county Legislature would provide $5.7 million toward the project, paid through bonds. The library board and Friends of the Library have raised about $2 million in private donations since the project was announced four years ago.