New York State has announced $4.3 million in construction funds for Long Island libraries, a sum local library officials said is badly needed, but far from enough to pay for necessary repairs and upgrades.
“It’s barely chipping away at the need that’s out there: 75 percent of our library buildings are over 50 years old,” said Caroline Ashby, director of the Nassau Library System.
Across her system’s 54 member libraries, HVAC systems, windows and elevators need to be repaired, Ashby said. Libraries meeting new needs like post-pandemic small group meeting rooms for people working from home, are also straining from the costs, she said. “They are continuously reconfiguring spaces to meet modern needs … It all requires capital funding.”
For Nassau, the funding announced last week ranges from $4,316 for water bottle filling stations at Jericho Public Library to $302,015 for upgrading the HVAC system at Freeport Memorial Library’s West Building. In Suffolk, the funding ranges from $7,350 for Westhampton Free Library to hook up to the sewer system, to $422,500 for upgraded wastewater and fire systems at Mastics-Moriches Shirley Library. Across both systems, 35 libraries received construction money.
According to the latest published figures on the state library website, Nassau system libraries’ estimated needs for 2021-2025 are $62 million, and Suffolk libraries’ needs are $98.9 million. Ashby said that an updated estimate of Nassau's needs for the period covering 2023-2027 is $130 million.
While school districts may rely on billions in state aid to fund a considerable portion of their budgets and saw a record funding increase on Long Island this spring, the state's 756 public libraries are funded mostly by local taxpayers, and advocates say aid has not kept up with need. Statewide this year, $34 million was awarded for 197 library construction projects; that amount has not increased since 2018-2019. Libraries also receive about $96 million in general state aid, said Kevin Verbesey, the Suffolk Cooperative Library System's director.
In Oceanside, assistant director Tony Iovino said the $166,356 award was a fraction of what was needed amid a $33.5 million library upgrade approved by voters that includes basic fixes to leaky windows and roofs.
“The aid situation in New York State for libraries is insulting and it hurts the people that need it the most,” Iovino said, citing an array of novel library programs that cover everything from cooking and nutrition to social isolation and computer literacy.
In response to those concerns, Dora Ricci, a spokeswoman for the New York State Education Department, which announced the funding awards said: “Additional funding for the State Aid for Public Library Construction Program would benefit libraries and the communities they serve."
In Suffolk, with 56 member libraries, the construction aid “doesn’t go as far as we would like,” Verbesey said.. “There are newer challenges every year and newer services that people in our communities need that we’re trying to provide.”
At Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library, director Kerri Rosalia said the aid would offset the cost of a nearly $27 million project, approved by voters in 2019, that includes renovating the main library on William Floyd Parkway and opening two smaller branches in Mastic Beach and Moriches. The cost was a “heavy lift” for the community of almost 60,000 residents, she said, but seen as a worthy investment by those who wanted library services to be more easily accessible.
Comsewogue Public Library Director Debra Engelhardt said her library’s $187,000 award would help pay for new boilers and pumps.
If funding permits, she hopes in coming years to turn to re-carpeting and planting an outdoor “reading garden” for children.
“It is challenging to make ends meet, in this day and age, when you’re working within the tax cap environment," Engelhardt said.