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Great Neck Library Board not open over building budget, fundraising goals

Crowds have been turning out to Great Neck Public Library trustees meetings over concern that the Main Building Project will be an excuse to slash Levels, a popular innovative teen program.
Crowds have been turning out to Great Neck Public Library trustees meetings over concern that the Main Building Project will be an excuse to slash Levels, a popular innovative teen program.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/

The July 31 special meeting of the board of trustees of the Great Neck Library was packed, mostly with supporters of Levels, frantic that the program will be undermined when Main is closed for the renovation and never recover.

But when they left, each and everyone was still mystified. As they rehashed in their minds what was said - the pronouncements and promises, the protestations and declarations and pledges - they could not decipher, in fact, what would happen to Levels during or after the renovation of Main, when the building will be closed.

And there are other questions as well.

How much money will the Board actually have to spend on the renovation? and how much will they need? And if they need to fundraise, how much do they need to raise and what will the fundraising be for? Why wouId any employees have to be let go (the salaries are paid out of the operating budget which has not been reduced), and if the lack of physical space is the reason (despite longer hours at branches), why would that affect Levels people who will be in three different venues? I asked specific questions and got back obfuscation.

Indeed, the Board received some good news July 31. Noah Nadelson of Munistat, the Library's bond counsel, said that the Library could expect a $500,000 "premium" when it goes to sell its $10.4 million in bonds this fall. That means it has $10.9 million to work with.

Now take the Levels part of the project. Everyone has been really concerned about retaining the three full-time and three part-time professionals during the renovation, when Main is shut down and Levels programs are shunted to Saddle Rock school and Station Branch.

But no one has been paying attention to how the Board is shortchanging Levels' renovation.

The base bid apparently did not account for making Levels ADA-compliant (handicap-accessible). That is being addressed, but it means raising the stage, which then means that the ceiling also has to be raised. That leaves existing walls (which are in bad condition), not reaching the new ceiling.

"Levels. This has been the area that had the most lack of clarity over the development of the project," Russell A. Davidson, President of KG&D Architects, perfunctorily told the BAC on July 30. "While we always said we would do ceilings and lighting throughout the facility – and then you asked to look into making it handicap accessible – in our view, our direction was the project had to include replacement ceiling and lighting and making handicap accessible in the base – that’s the current plan, the base bid."

You would think the Building Advisory Committee would address this, but no, fixing the walls

and renovating bathrooms (which are "horrible" according to BAC member Amy Levinson), and making some improvements to repurpose space, while they are at it, are considered an "add alt" - meaning that it is considered a "wish", not a necessity.

The difference in money is not clear (not even to Library President Marietta DiCamillo who expressed confusion to the architect and construction manager), but as near as I could tell, the improvements to Levels were budgeted at $93,000 and the "extras" (walls and bathrooms) would bring the amount to $218,000 (bathrooms at $46,000 each).

For some reason, they seem to feel that the Levelites should raise that money for such "amenities" as bathrooms and walls. Instead of saying that the money will be found (like from the $500,000 "premium" the bond issue will yield), they are turning around and saying that the Levels people will have to do their own fundraising to make these "add alt" improvements.

And why would that be? Is the children's department fundraising for its toilets? Indeed, the amount that is being lavished on the Children's room - which is like Parkville in its privileged status, while Levels always seems to be treated as a bastard child -- is breathtaking. (One of the "add alts" is for a canopied walkway from the lower parking lot.)

The trustees have to make the decision before the final plans are rendered, August 12, and before the project is put out to bid.

In their cheerleading for the $10.4 million bond, the trustees never disclosed to the public that the money was not sufficient to complete the project - actually furnishing the building, for example - and would need millions more which they intended to raise through private donations - that is, fundraising.

And they never disclosed that space is so tight that they have to literally count inches, put the door to access a janitor's closet in the men's room.

There isn't even room in the vending area for people to actually sit, so they will have to stand around with their drinks. (The vending machines should be renamed "Samanskys" because the Saddle Rock Mayor threatened to shut down parking on Bayview if the Library dared to have an actual cafe, which is ubiquitous at other libraries and a source of revenue if not comfort. As for the tight squeeze, Samansky refused to allow the building to add even three feet in order to have a true second floor instead of a mezzanine; and Mrs. Samansky, on one of the early Building Advisory Committees, said that Great Neck doesn't need a "Cadillac" that a Chevrolet would be good enough).

The trustees never disclosed that the reason the bond was set at $10.4 million - not $11 million or even $10.5 million was to assure the support of a former trustee who fought against any major renovation of Main (he wanted a "modular, phased in project), and who worked so diligently to defeat the 2011 bond referendum, set that figure as the limit.

Guess what - he's baaack.

Norman Rutta is actually on the fundraising committee, along with Rebecca Gilliar who also fought against any substantive rebuilding (she was really, really upset that the Main library would be closed at all - and now the main library will be shut down for a year without any additional space, which the other project would have provided).

But of course, Rebecca's great idea was to not have any bond at all, but rather to tap some wealthy benefactor. And now she is on the fundraising committee.

So now, the trustees are getting into high gear with a fundraising scheme (coming to your mailbox soon!).

After literally being kicked out of the first fundraising committee meeting, I attended the July 23 meeting, at which Helen Crosson, director of Cold Spring Harbor Library gave a fascinating presentation of how her Library achieved its complete rebuilding (more than tripling its size), with a bond and fundraising campaign. Her presentation on how to conduct fundraising, was interesting on so many levels for what this Library Board has failed to do.

Crosson described a project to replace a 7,000-sq ft. building with a new-built 26,000 square ft building, She already had $1 million in donations before going for a $9.5 million bond.

"$9.5 million wasn’t enough – it would give us a shell but not fill the inside." They needed another $3 million. "So we were working with the foundation board, identified features in the building we thought we could promote and garner interest for people to support those things."

The Great Neckers salivated to hear how there was a bidding war for naming rights for certain visible parts of the library: The Children's Room (went for $1 million). Other marquee places: its storytime area, its hands-on environmental learning center, the reference desk, director office, service desk, porch (visible stuff). "We still haven’t sold the elevator."

They raised $4 million through fundraising, plus $500,000 in an endowment. But to jumpstart, Crosson hired a certified fundraising executive –at a cost of $22,000 a month for 3 months who " taught me and other members of capital committee how to do ask" for donations.

Consider this: the Cold Spring Harbor Library project cost $14.5 million for a 26,000 sq ft building for a community of 8500 people (Great Neck has 40,000), more than 10 years ago. Our project is 38,505 square feet, which they pitched to us would cost $10.4 million knowing full well (and I questioned the figure at the time), that they couldn't actually complete the project for that amount.

Frankly, we could have rebuilt the building from the ground up, rather than do a gut-renovation, for less money. But these trustees, who brought on similar-minded individuals to run the Building Advisory Committee, were ideologically committed to keeping the structure intact and not expanding by a single, solitary inch.

The fundraising committee was really excited by how devoted the Levels alumns and parents have been, even contributing to a Kickstarter campaign that hit their $10,000 target - hope to piggy-back that same approach, even trying to obtain the same fundraising list.

They had Ethan Mann who heads Levels come to the fundraising committee to tell him of their great idea to use Levelites for their fundraising events. and told him they wanted his Levelites to decorate and entertain at the October cocktail party they are organizing (I suggest "Oliver Twist" as the theme), and want to ask Lisa Curry for her list to hit them up for donations to the building project.

When Mann said he would have to consult with the Levels "families" before committing, Rebecca Gilliar said that Levels "is students, not families."

Mann replied coolly, "I don’t think of asking a 15 year old without asking permission."

At the July 31 meeting, Trustee Michael Fuller put a happy face on the exploitation of the urchins: "We will have a number of events in October – a gala – and bring Levels in to entertain, decorate, show themselves off, keep levels in front of everybody. We will put you front and center- you will help us help you raise funds for the Library and do more for Levels and the library."

At the committee meeting, when they were discussing wording for the flyer that would be sent out, I noted that there is no "goal" listed, nor what the donations would be used for. I was handily dismissed by DiCamillo who tersely pronounced, "it's under discussion."

At the July 31 meeting, I asked again and DiCamillo, who still did not offer a target amount, listed "green initiatives (solar panels), patio garden (landscaping, xeriscape), parking lot improvements and repaving, assistive listening devices, indoor/outdoor video monitors to advertise Library programs, refurbish elevator, and Levels." [Note, this building has zero green initiatives, which might have garnered grants and there may not even be any energy savings since the systems don't actually function now.]

I would suggest that bathrooms and walls for Levels are not in the same category as a garden, which can be added at any time, but bathrooms should be changed during construction.

Here's another aspect of fundraising that is foul: what will happen to the Library's art collection. What I can only assume is because don't want to pay for storage, nor will they have walls or storage space after the renovation, but see the potential to actually ring up extra cash for the project, the trustees are actually planning to dispose, give away or sell off the Library's art collection - some 100 works - inviting someone to volunteer their expertise to establish any that have value that can be auctioned off (an estimated 10 to 15 have value). Excuse me? Don't these artworks belong to the community? Weren't they donated to the Library for the community's benefit?

Crosson, who came to Cold Spring Harbor Library in February 1999 (the construction project took place over a four-year period), told the Fundraising Committee that part of her strategy was to make herself visible in every part of the community - she was out constantly.

"I was all over the place, and still am – I spend more time in the community than behind desk, I am one of the most visible people in community."

We don't have a Library Director. We haven't had a Library Director for nearly two years - and the community should reflect why candidates haven't been banging down the Library door if we are truly held in such high regard (in a lousy job market, no less).

Every other Library Board, in the midst of the biggest renovation project in 50 years, would have made a priority of hiring a Director with experience in managing a major renovation (that was a criteria to hire Jane Marino, who chose to leave). This Board went out of its way to exclude that expertise in the job description when they made their first half-hearted effort at replacing Marino.

And the way the Board has handled the "furloughs" (scheduling) for staff during the renovation, on top of the fact that the Library has run through four Directors in the space of a single career, not to mention the micro-managing that has become emblematic of this Board of volunteers (hard-working to be sure but none are Library professionals), is probably why no one has come forward who has even a clue as to Great Neck Library's history. (And by the way, we are even losing the Interim Director, Laura Weir, who announced her retirement as of December).

It's already August. The staff has been "weeding" and moving toward closing down Main since January. And no one so far has even had a conversation with representatives of the staff, or invited the staff to come up with a suggestions for how to handle personnel. It's disgraceful to treat people - professionals who provide dedicated service to the community - this way.

The sense of desperation came out in the voice of Janet Gillen, a part-time Children’s librarian at Main for the past 17 years. She told the Board she came to the meeting that night, because "I wanted more info about what is going on – I love my job –I come every day. I give 100%. I know what’s going to happen – I accept it – I may not be here in the fall. Just let us know when. We won’t slack off. We’ll work hard. Just give us some respect. We respect you, the administration. I wanted to put a face to the part-timers. I need to know how to plan my life. At least let the supervisors know. Just don’t string us along. It's really not fair."

The problem isn't the money. The personnel budget line is not cut, and as we learned at the July 31 meeting, 10 out of 35 eligible staff, accepted the Library's early retirement offer, which should reduce spending, but more importantly, reduce the number of staff. (DiCamillo said they haven't decided yet whose positions would be replaced. Why would any be replaced, when they are looking to furlough people?)

No the problem is physical room for the staff once Main is closed.

But the fact is that the three branches are going to have extended hours and have to provide more service to take up the slack - so maybe they could ask for the staff to come up with a schedule that divides the hours among everyone. Perhaps there are some who would volunteer to take a "sabbatical".

The big controversy is over Levels staff - the six people - three full time and three part time- each bring some unique skills, mentoring, and simply oversight for the number of young people who participate (Saddle Rock school won't allow the program there without sufficient staff-student ratio). There is no need and no justification to cut any of them at all, even if DiCamillo suggests in the interests of "fairness" there will be an across-the-board number of positions slashed (or furloughed in their parlance).

"The fact that Levels runs with only six is miracle," a young woman told the Board. "To say it could run on three is not feasible. If you lose three, it's not like losing three pairs of hands, but specific kinds – mentors, dance, TV and film..."

And another worried that Levels staff "would find jobs elsewhere and we won’t have the talent when Levels reopens."

DiCamillo (President-in-Virtual Perpetuity since the library trustees voted to waive the term limits policy that would have required her to step down from being President, until the completion of the Main building project and reopening) parried the concern:

"We will do our level best to keep the program as robust as currently exists- it is one of the many plans the board is working on – The commitment by the board to levels, we are committed to keeping all the departments as much as possible [but we] have closure of the building. Like it or not, it won’t be open to public – it’s old, it needs to be spruced up. Levels will be a better place," she said, taking a tone that sounded funereal despite her assurances.

Indeed, over the years, the most vindictive individuals who have been associated with the Board, and who particularly targeted Levels, are now the ones calling the shots: In a slap in the face of the community that voted her off the Board in the bad ol' days of intense divisiveness and hostility, the Nominating Committee wants Ralene Adler back on the board. Unless anyone files papers to run independently by the August 15 deadline, she will be uncontested.

Update: Robert Schaufeld is gathering signatures for a petition to be an independent candidate for Great Neck Library trustee challenging Ralene Adler.

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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