We must uphold the Stowell Agreement that takes care of our libraries

Greenwich-Voices-GoldrickIt’s common sense that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and the way Greenwich funds its library system definitely “ain’t broke.”

Our sewer system has suffered from decades of neglect, leading to two EPA consent decrees requiring major repairs. We operate what is likely the oldest collection of school facilities of any affluent town in the state. Additionally, our main fire and police stations fell into serious disrepair before the town was forced to rebuild them. But Greenwich’s libraries are about the best part of our town’s infrastructure.

They are in fine shape because of our public/private partnership in which the library trustees have been able to mobilize private funds to build and expand town libraries. But that system, which has been in place for a century, is about to be discarded by BET Republicans.

For a century, Greenwich has operated on the “Carnegie system,” named after Andrew Carnegie, the great builder of libraries across the country, including 11 in Connecticut. In a nutshell, this system means that you build libraries with private funds, then operate them with public funds.

Virtually all of Greenwich’s libraries were built with private donations. The town’s libraries (except for Perrot) are owned by the Friends of Greenwich Library and operated specifically “for the benefit of the people of the town of Greenwich.” But library employees are paid with taxpayer funds and are considered town employees. The town is responsible for books and other library supplies and equipment and for maintaining the buildings. It’s a system that is common throughout Connecticut.

Over the years, however, some have grumbled that the town shouldn’t be required to maintain the libraries, or should push more of the cost onto private donors. Back in 1988, then Republican BET chairman Sam Stowell turned to BET member and attorney Bob Gilhuly to lay out the funding agreement that had been in use since the turn of the century. That concise document, which lays out the public/private partnership, is known as the Stowell Agreement.

That framework came in for criticism again when cladding at the main library began to fall off and significant repairs were needed. The RTM narrowly voted funding for the repairs, though building maintenance is clearly spelled out as the responsibility of the town in the Stowell Agreement.

For the past two years, BET Republicans have attempted to eliminate Stowell, contending not that the framework has failed in any way, but that it needed to be “modernized.” They claimed that the language of the agreement had to be “clarified” and that the 1988 agreement didn’t include mention of “major object codes.” In reality, however, the new proposals have been focused on giving the town, specifically the BET, more authority over decisions to expand the library system. And, given the BET’s past history, that is worrisome.

Twenty years ago, the BET told the library trustees that they were operating too many branches and pushed them to close Cos Cob Library, which was operating in a small shopping center across from Cos Cob fire station. That led Cos Cob residents to mobilize against the closing and to revolt against the trustees with an insurgent slate standing for election. The trustees reversed their decision, and ultimately decided to build a new, albeit too small, library adjacent to Cos Cob School.

Today, the Cos Cob Library is heavily used and bursting at the seams. The Glenville community could certainly use a library branch. But it is highly questionable whether those expansions will ever happen if the Stowell agreement is scrapped.

The private/public partnership laid out a quarter-century ago has served the town exceedingly well. It ain’t broke, so there’s no reason to “fix it.”

 

Sean Goldrick is a Democratic member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, though the opinions expressed in this column are his own. He may be reached at [email protected]

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