Photo: An aerial view of the schematic design of the proposed Belmont Public Library (credit: Oudens Ello Architecture)
By Mary Lewis
In 1980, Massachusetts passed Proposition 2 ½, a measure limiting increases on property taxes in municipalities to 2.5 percent per year. This ballot initiative was one of a string of similar laws inspired by California’s much more draconian Proposition 13. The story of what happened to public services in my home state of California offers lessons for Belmont as it faces crucial funding choices on Nov. 8.
I grew up in California in the 1970s and 1980s, and I can clearly remember the Prop 13 before and after. The biggest impact was on schools. But many other public services, from parks and pools to recreation centers and libraries were also affected. Before Prop. 13, I could walk to a branch library. Afterwards, it closed for good. Today, a private fitness studio occupies the building once filled with kids listening to story hour. I learned something from that experience: once the funding for a public building or service is taken away, it usually doesn’t come back.
Fortunately, Massachusetts’ Proposition 2 ½, although drawing on a similar desire to rein in taxation, had the wisdom to allow municipalities to pass debt exclusions, which allow adjustments to property taxes for fixed periods of time in order to fund capital expenditures like libraries.
We live in a Commonwealth – a term that literally means what is shared and beneficial for the members of a given community. It was in Massachusetts that the building believed to house the oldest public library in the United States was built. Belmont is the heir to that public library tradition. Our library ranks in the top ten of towns and cities for highest circulation per opening hour across the Commonwealth, and is a social center for our town. That statistic means we are in the same company as cities like Cambridge, Boston, and Quincy despite being a small town. But our library building is at the end of its life. Its systems are failing, and it would be irresponsible to try to fix these with band aids, only to watch them fail again – throwing away our tax dollars. Instead, we need a building that can last.
The new plan for the library includes not only traditional library services, but envisions what a 21st century library needs to be: a place to borrow books, of course, but also a place where job-seekers can have secure internet, or book a room for a Zoom interview. A site for hosting talks for the whole community. And yes, in the 21st century, it can and must be a site where people needing wheelchairs can finally make it to the main floor, in compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed more than 30 years ago and with which our library is not compliant.
Library use rates aren’t just statistics; they’re an experience – yours, your child’s, or your grandchild’s. And when libraries close, it’s that experience that is gone: story hours lost, books unborrowed, community meetings not held, and stable internet access untapped for those who don’t have it at home. Make no mistake, if we have to shut our library, we will violate state certification rules, and there’s no guarantee neighboring towns will let us use their libraries under such circumstances. The Minuteman Library Network requires viable libraries that give into the system, not just take. Decertification has happened before. We cannot let it happen to us.
Libraries, schools, community centers, recreational facilities, and parks. These are the building blocks of the common good – the Commonwealth of Belmont. Let us renew our commitment to community, and let it thrive. The Commonwealth spirit is alive and well in Belmont: the cost of this new library is being partly offset by the largest private fundraising drive in Belmont history, pledges we will lose if we don’t pass a debt exclusion to commit public funding for the rest. Please join me in voting Yes on Question 5. You can vote early at Town Hall. Or you can go to your polling place on November 8. You can still register to vote until Oct. 29. Vote for the common good, the Commonwealth of Belmont.
Mary Lewis is a Town Meeting Member from Precinct 1.