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Not so fast on closing Saugus library

Posted by Marcia Dick  April 20, 2007 04:32 PM

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An overlooked provision of a state grant could save the Saugus Public Library from closing if a $5.2 million Proposition 2 1/2 override vote is rejected by voters on Tuesday.

Saugus received a $1.2 million construction grant from the state Board of Library Commissioners in 1997 to build a new library. The terms require Saugus to keep the library open for at least 20 years, and make "full and good faith efforts" to fund it, according to grant regulations published on the board's website, www.mass.gov/mblc.

If Saugus fails to meet the requirements, the town must pay back the state the balance of the grant, with interest. A final decision to close the library would have to be approved by the Board of Library Commissioners, a state spokesman said.

"No one has ever come to us and said, 'Gee, we have to close our library,'" said David Gray, the state board's communications director. "Other towns have closed their libraries, but they didn't have a grant from us."

Gray said the grant requirement is not unique to Saugus. It applies to any community that receives a construction grant, which are paid for through state bonds.

"The idea is to make sure that the town doesn’t get a construction grant for a library, then turn around and use it for something else," Gray said.

Saugus officials have said the library, along with the senior center and Town Hall on Fridays only, would have to close if the override fails. Dozens of employees, including 18 teachers, could be laid off to balance the town's $60 million budget for fiscal 2008.

News of the grant provisions caught town officials off-guard. Most weren't on the job in 1997.

"It was a surprise," said Town Manager Andrew R. Bisignani, who took office four years ago. "The contract for the grant was signed 10 years ago ... I don't think anyone is to blame for not being aware of it. Whoever thought we'd be thinking about closing the library?"

Bisignani has asked the town's legal counsel to review the grant contract. "We're not looking to violate any agreement," he said. "But there is also plenty of case law that says a municipality can't be forced to appropriate money."

The library costs about $570,000 annually to operate. If the town is forced to fund it, Bisignani said that money will have to be cut from other town departments.

"It's a big chunk of money," he said. "What are we to do? Lay off more teachers or firefighters? The alternative is not pretty."
-- Kathy McCabe

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About override central Coverage of Prop 21/2 override campaigns in more than 30 communities in Greater Boston.
Christine Wallgren is a correspondent in the Globe South bureau.
David Dahl is the Globe's regional editor.

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