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Pequot Library supporters crusade for restoration of $350,000 budget cut

Updated 6:43 am, Saturday, April 13, 2013

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  • A sign urging people to sign an online petition in support of the Pequot Library's bid to win restoration of $350,000 in town funding has been erected in front of the Southport library.  FAIRFIELD CITIZEN, CT 4/10/13 Photo: Andrew Brophy / Fairfield Citizen contributed
    A sign urging people to sign an online petition in support of the Pequot Library's bid to win restoration of $350,000 in town funding has been erected in front of the Southport library. FAIRFIELD CITIZEN, CT 4/10/13 Photo: Andrew Brophy

 

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Pequot Library is urging patrons and supporters to contact Representative Town Meeting members and sign an online petition in hopes of getting a $350,000 cut to its operating budget restored -- without the money, library officials warn, the landmark Southport library will close.

Town Attorney Stanton Lesser said Wednesday that both the library's board of trustees and First Selectman Michael Tetreau have the standing needed to appeal the Board of Finance's elimination of the $350,000 allocation in the town's proposed 2013-14 budget.

Bill Russell, chairman of the Pequot Board of Trustees, filed an appeal for the funding restoration Tuesday in the Town Clerk's Office, and Tetreau's office said Thursday that the first selectman also intends to file an appeal of the funding cut.

To be considered by the RTM, which takes the final vote on the new budget in May, any appeals of funding cuts must be filed by 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Town Clerk's office.

"There will be an appeal" of the elimination of the Pequot Library's $350,000 allocation, Tetreau said earlier in the week. "I think it's important that the RTM take this up and have this discussion."

Selectman Kevin Kiley said Wednesday that he hopes the Board of Finance's decision would be reversed, and that the "full amount of $350,000" would be restored to the town budget that takes effect July 1.

Martha Lord, executive director of Pequot Library, has said the $350,000 cut, if not restored, could lead to the library closing.

"We're talking about a third of our budget," she said on Wednesday.

"I was surprised to hear (Board of Finance members) thought we could just make that up through fundraising. ... To come up with another $350,000 on top of what we're already raising would be daunting."

"It's too big a hole for us to fill," Lord said. She said the library now raises nearly $700,000 a year, and its average donation is $150. She said the library also uses part of its endowment toward its operating budget.

The money was cut from proposed town spending last week by the Finance Board, as members looked for ways to reduce the projected tax increase in the coming fiscal year.

Pequot Library, founded in 1889, is privately owned but open to the public, and many of its programs are integrated into the Fairfield Public Library and the Fairfield Woods Branch Library, which are municipal libraries.

Books taken out from the municipal libraries can be returned to Pequot Library, and Pequot Library takes part in programs sponsored by the public libraries, such as the annual "One Book, One Town" community reading initiative.

The library, which occupies a stone building at 720 Pequot Ave. listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is known for community events such as its July 4th bicycle parade and picnic, its recent Easter Egg Roll and the Kentucky Derby Day party, as well as its annual summer book sale, reputed to be one of the largest in the Northeast.

It also is known for its collection of rare and special-edition books.

Lord said Pequot Library has an online petition calling on the RTM to restore the money, and as of Thursday afternoon, the petition had more than 1,500 signatures. The library is conducting a "phone-a-thon" to Fairfield residents who live outside the town's Southport neighborhood to encourage them to write to their RTM members and voice support for reversal of the $350,000 that was cut.

Library officials invited RTM members to the library last Friday for a tour and informational meeting, and plan to hold another meeting at the library for RTM members who couldn't attend the first one, Lord said.

Lord said she and Russell attended an open house at McKinley School on Saturday to talk with RTM members from Districts 5, 6 and 7 at the suggestion of one of the members who toured the library a day earlier.

Ruth Frantz, a Pequot trustee, said the library also plans a rally at 1:30 p.m. on April 20 as an added feature to a Music for Youth concert that was previously scheduled.

"It's a concert, predominantly, but we'll also be rallying for support of the library," she said.

The RTM would be able to reverse the Board of Finance's decision only if two-thirds of local legislators present at the May budget meeting vote in favor. The RTM has 50 members, so if all 50 are present, it would take 34 votes to restore the Pequot funding.

Lord said Pequot Library serves the entire town, and that 80 percent of its visitors, donors and program attendees live outside the Southport ZIP code. "The town of Fairfield is a large town, and we are serving the whole town," she said. "Our services, we see them as complementary. We are the third public library in the town, and we are fully integrated into the system. ... We work very closely and well with the Fairfield libraries, the other two."

Lord said the Pequot Library, which is the oldest of the town's three libraries, is privately owned because it opened before the concept of municipal libraries.

"It's not as if the intent was to somehow be separate. That's just the history of how it got started," she said.

In 2011-12, visits to Pequot Library totaled 114,000; attendance at library programs was 28,000, and the library loaned a total of 42,502 books, according to the library's newsletter for the spring and summer of 2013.

Lord said Pequot Library officials understand that town officials are making difficult decisions relative to the proposed 2013-14 town budget and taxes, but library officials never expected to see the entire town contribution to its operating budget eliminated.

"It was shocking, really, for this type of decision to be made without public input really allowed and then to have five people on the Finance (Board) vote it, I was surprised that could happen," she said.

Frantz said, "Until you're in it, you don't realize how hard fundraising is. ... It's a lot of plodding and trodding."

"To get that extra $350,000 is not like water falling off a duck. It's very difficult," Frantz said. "Lots of people use this library. Unfortunately, they're not connecting it with a moment to donate."

Michelle Jaffee, a Fairfield resident who was a panelist at the "Venture Mom" program held Wednesday at the Pequot Library, said she brought her children to Pequot Library when they were younger, and that they participated in the library's July 4 bike parade and visited the summer book sale, which draws book dealers and book lovers from across the country.

"We spent many, many hours in the children's room over the years," she said. "We continue to use Pequot Library, as well as the downtown library."

Jaffee said the Pequot Library is a "cultural center for our community."

The library, she said, "is unique for its architecture and the warmth of its staff and for all the cultural events that are held here. ... I consider this and the downtown library my two libraries."

Louis Bevilacqua, of Trumbull, who was visiting the library Wednesday morning, said he has relatives in Fairfield and has been coming to Pequot Library since he was a child.

"It's such a historic and important library. This is the type of originality you can't reconstruct," he said. "You can't re-create something like this. It's a piece of Connecticut history. It's a piece of Fairfield history and Southport history."

Lord said Pequot Library hopes RTM members "will see the value that we bring to the community." She said the library, if the $350,000 cut is not restored, may not close on the July 1 start of the 2013-14 fiscal year, but said, "We would not have the staying power to stay open long-term."

"We would hope that they would reinstate all or the majority of it and we would continue to look at ways to make ourselves sustainable without as much support," Lord said.

Lord said the library paid for its $3 million renovation in 2006 without any money from the town, and put on hold the second phase of its renovation, which includes building an addition on back of the library, after the economy crashed in 2008.