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Manchester Voters To Consider Increased Funding For New Library

The town of Manchester holds the municipal portion of its town meeting this Saturday. One of the more contentious items up for a vote is a funding request from the town’s library trustees, to help with a new library under construction near the town center. The multi-million dollar project is funded by private donations. But the library is asking the town to chip in almost$ 200,000 — a big increase — to help run the new facility.

That’s raised some concerns locally. So in recent weeks Manchester’s library trustees and director have been leading tours of the expansive new building and explaining its many functions.

Betsy Bleakie is Executive Director of the Mark Skinner Library. The 116-year-old facility in the town's historic district will be replaced later this year by the new Manchester Community Library. Bleakie says the old five-story library isn’t handicapped accessible. She says it reflects a time when libraries were only about books. Nowadays, she says, they serve many different functions.

"This library was built with those in mind," Bleakie says. "It’s more of a community center, a learning commons, an education hub. Books are still here, but there’s now technology, community meeting and gathering spaces, children’s spaces."

The building will have room for concerts, exhibits, fundraisers, and lectures. There’s a space for the town historical society and its archives, for a non-profit literacy program, and more. Not only will wi-fi and computers be available to the public. There will also be staff to help patrons fill out online government forms, look for jobs, and to help senior citizens Skype and email their grandchildren.

"It is taken for granted by some that everybody has computers and everybody has wi-fi," she says. "And that’s not the case."

The new library is also an easy walk from Manchester’s elementary and middle school. Bleakie says it will be a safe after-school haven for children whose parents are at work.

But not everyone agrees that working people will benefit from the new facility. Wayne Bell is the vice chair of the Manchester select board.

"We recognize the extraordinary contribution and importance of a library in our community," says Bell. “In terms of how gilded or golden a facility we can afford, that may be another question."

Bell acknowledges that the $5.4 million project is funded by private donations. But he says the current town meeting request for $198,000 for library operations is out of proportion for a town of 4,300 residents. He notes that before 2003 the Mark Skinner Library was a private library, which people paid a fee to join. Since the library started seeking funding from the town, Bell says, that appropriation has increased significantly.  He says the current request is almost $45,000 more than last year’s. Bell says the town works hard to keep the local tax rate down.

"Even though one might argue that that is not a huge increase on most individual tax payers," he says. "It is pushing that envelope for a lot of people that are living check to check and are just able to handle their property tax burden."

Bell says computers now give everyone access to all the libraries in the world without leaving home. He says library buildings shouldn’t need to expand. 

Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe says he’s hearing comments around town on both sides of the library issue and can't predict how the vote will turn out. The funding request will be voted up or down in Manchester’s open meeting Saturday.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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