RTM to write Pequot Library’s fate

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The recognizable lawn at Pequot Library now includes a sign asking passers-by to speak for the restoration of town funding. (Joseph COle photo)

Martha Lord, executive director at the Pequot Library, is going into Monday’s RTM meaning with as much optimism as she can muster. She may need it.

“I’ve been talking to everyone. Everybody says they are in favor of a library, but the budget,” said Lord, leaving the last part unsaid as she sat in the lower level of the Pequot Library. Shelves throughout the room, cordoned off behind a locked entryway, house some of the library’s unique collection.

Monday, April 22, is the last chance the library, patrons and supporters have to recover the $350,000 grant from the town of Fairfield removed from the budget by the Board of Finance.

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Martha Lord, Pequot Library executive director

The Pequot Library is a nonprofit organization, distinct unto itself in Fairfield. An endowment helps fund it, but does not cover the entirety of operating costs. According to Lord, only about 25% of the funding to keep the Pequot Library open comes from the endowment. The town’s contribution is one-third of the library’s budget.

“I made it very clear at the Board of Finance when they voted that this was a vote to close the library,” Lord said.

The prevailing thought among opponents of publicly funding the library through the budget is that the Pequot Library is not a town owned and operated institution, and therefore should not be funded with taxpayer dollars. Those supporting the budget cut feel the library should rely on patrons and the endowment.

Lord noted the library is tied into the same cataloging system as the two main libraries in town and in most regards acts as an official branch. Programs offered at the Pequot Library are often free and open to the entire public.

“More than 80% of our patronage comes from ZIP codes that are not right here,” said Lord, referring to the Southport 06890 ZIP code.

Relying on the endowment proves an untenable solution, according to Lord. As of the last fiscal year, it was only $2.6 million, with roughly $1 million earmarked and untouchable. To keep the library running on the interest without chipping away at the principal, Lord estimated, would require another $8 million to $10 million.

The natural answer from opponents to publicly funding the library is for the nonprofit to turn to patrons and fund raising to meet its budgetary gaps. Lord said the Pequot Library does indeed do a fair amount of fund raising to cover the gap between the town contribution and the endowment. However, nearly doubling the amount of contributions to keep the library operating at its current level is nigh impossible.

Almost ironically, Lord was brought into the executive director position eight months ago. She was hired with an impetus to help bring in more contributions, based on what she called a history of turning around nonprofits.

With cutbacks that would result in a severe reduction of services, Lord thinks the library could limp on for up to three years at best before the endowment was fully drained. Lord’s primary hope to avoid that fate is to convince the RTM to reverse the Board of Finance decision.

Public support appears to be there for the Pequot Library, and Lord remains optimistic. An online petition at pequotlibrary.org originally asked for 1,000 signatures. It raised that number to 2,000. As of 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, 2,155 people had signed.

A support rally also is planned for Saturday, April 20, from 1 to 2 p.m. There will be music and a pep rally. Children are invited to wear costumes and decorate their bikes and wagons in celebration of National Library Week, which ends on Saturday.

Lord said she has been inundated with emails of support, and hasn’t been able to answer them all. As much as she is buoyed by the support, she said it is the RTM members who need to hear their constituents’ voices, because that Monday meeting is where the real fate of the library will be decided.

A library regular and volunteer was overheard talking to librarian Marianne Pysarchyk at the Pequot Library’s main desk. The elderly woman said to Pysarchyk that she had talked to her RTM representative and was disheartened. She was told there was “no way” the RTM would reverse the decision. She concluded her business and left the library.

Skepticism for the likelihood of restoration isn’t unfounded. Just to have the request heard, appeals had to be filed by at least one of the two people with the authority to do so on the library’s behalf: First Selectman Michael Tetreau or William Russell Jr., president of the Pequot Library board of trustees.

Both did file an appeal on behalf of the library.

However, locking in the ability to appeal is only the beginning. Overriding the decision of the Board of Finance will require that two-thirds of the 50-member RTM vote to do so Monday.

Pysarchyk said many of the patrons have been voicing their fears and concerns, and everyone is keenly aware of the uncertainty of Monday’s vote.

“Of course we’re concerned about our jobs, but this is also such a wonderful library and really great part of the community,” said Pysarchyk, who hails from Shelton.

She said she’s worked in a few libraries, and none of them could stand up to the grace and sophistication of the Pequot Library.

She also conceded that there was an interpretation, and in her opinion an unfair one, that the Pequot Library was not a public library or that it didn’t offer services to anyone other than the affluent Southport residents.

RTM representative Amy Mezoff (R-4th District) stopped into the Pequot Library to meet with Lord. Mezoff said that while the library falls outside of her immediate constituency, she sees the value to the community and was surprised when the funding was cut.

“I don’t think anyone wants see the library close,” Mezoff said.

Outside the building she praised the style and architecture and lamented what the future of the property would be if the library vanishes: offices, perhaps some sort of small set of condos wedged into the space of the great lawn, or perhaps just a boarded-up ghost of what was once there.

“It would be a terrible legacy to be part of the RTM that closed the Pequot Library,” said Mezoff.

Mezoff is also optimistic that Monday’s meeting will turn out favorably for the library. She said her caucus doesn’t want to see it close and thinks the Democrats are largely of a similar mind. However, she suspects Lord and the patrons won’t get everything back.

“I think the chances are good that it will be a partial restoration,” said Mezoff. She added, “There have been a lot of bad decisions and I think this is a mistake the RTM has the ability to correct.”

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