Borrowed time — Roaring Spring Borough, library at odds over proposed gift of building

Mirror photos by William Kibler The Roaring Spring Community Library, which occupies the former Eldon Inn built in 1907, is reluctant to accept a gift of the building because of the structure’s many liabilities. The front porch of the library is often used by patrons to catch up on some reading.

ROARING SPRING — Maybe it’s fitting that the Roaring Spring Community Library would prefer to continue to borrow — rather than own — the historic building where it resides.

But Roaring Spring Borough, from which the library leases the former Eldon Inn for $1 a year, is insisting that the library take possession of the 112-year-old structure — and its major liabilities — or the borough will find a sales partner willing to accept those liabilities.

At a meeting last week attended by a crowd of library supporters, the sides agreed tentatively to try working out their differences, with the help of an appraisal, which could lead to the sale of the building for seed money toward a new library or establishment of equity for a mortgage for needed renovations — with either tactic supplemented by long-term fundraising.

Council has talked since October about divesting itself of the old inn’s liabilities to protect taxpayers and, in March, the borough sent the library board a letter calling for transfer of ownership early this month, which led to consternation among library supporters, who scolded council at the meeting for what they thought was a gift that carries an obligation to perform an estimated $600,000 in renovations to bring the building up to code — along with exposure to lawsuits if anything goes wrong in the meantime.

It seemed tantamount to a shutdown order, based on comments from library supporters, whose strategy focused on giving evidence of the library’s value.

“If you close this place down … you’d be letting down the community,” said Girl Scout Jocylynn Ramsey, who told council the library has been essential as a meeting place her troop and as a repository for information about budgeting, college applications and her career ambitions.

About 200 people visit on the average week, according to a flyer provided by library Director Michelle McIntyre.

The library currently operates 436 programs for 4,700 participants and provides residents access to 1.1 million books and 46,000 audiobooks, the flyer stated.

There’s no need for such evidence, because council agrees with the supporters about the library’s importance, according to Council President Bill Brumbaugh.

Council has no intention of shutting the library down, Brumbaugh said.

But given the borough’s obligation to taxpayers, its tight budget and the large potential liability connected with the inn, council’s only responsible course is to divest, Brumbaugh said.

Currently, taxpayers would be obligated to cover any major expense connected with the library, he said.

After the proposed transfer of ownership, that obligation disappears, he said.

Moreover, the ownership transfer was supposed to have taken place long ago — it’s called for, though without a deadline, in the 1966 lease agreement, when the library moved in, Brumbaugh said.

“There’s no upside for the borough to keep its name on the deed,” he said.

While library supporters asked for an extension of the lease until February, council agreed only to go month-by-month, with a tentative deadline for a decision in September. It also promised to continue indefinitely contributing $500 a month for maintenance and $5,000 a year for capital improvements.

Library officials would prefer to keep the historic inn, rather than move to a new location, according to McIntyre.

Based on the current real estate situation in the borough, moving to a rental property or building new would be more costly anyway, according to McIntyre.

While the proposed ownership transfer won’t technically trigger a requirement to bring the old inn up to code, it seems at least to have impressed on library officials the need for a renovation plan.

Foremost among deficiencies to be dealt with is the electrical system, replacement of which will cost about $60,000, based on a feasibility study by architect Judy Coutts, according to McIntyre.

The electrical system is inadequate for the technological systems in the library, Coutts said — prior to an apparent order from the board not to speak to the press.

Power to the computers often cuts out, which impedes the library from fulfilling its “mission,” Coutts said.

Then there are accessibility concerns, according to Coutts.

That could cost $100,000 or more to correct, she said.

There’s also a need for porch and roof repairs, according to a memo from McIntyre.

Many of the problems are the result of “deferred maintenance,” Coutts said.

“The building has been let go,” she said.

There also have been things installed and repairs made that were not done to code, she said.

“If the borough would have kept up the wear and tear of the building over the years, it would not cost so much to repair it now,” wrote resident Pauline Amick in a letter to council included in the meeting packet.

The building is in the kind of condition that, in an arm’s-length sale, could justify the buyer’s insistence that the seller bring the building into compliance first, according to Coutts.

Of course, the proposed transfer — a gift — is not an arm’s-length sale.

While the borough has owned the building for many years, it has had “only so much money” available to spend on the library, Brumbaugh said.

And it never seemed appropriate to enact a “library tax,” he said.

The lease is actually “kind of murky” on who is responsible for maintenance, anyway, said Katie Martin, the county coordinator for the Blair County Library System.

The borough struggles with money, according to officials.

For this year, it budgeted for income of $825,000, a “carryover” or surplus of $520,000 from last year — which balances with predicted expenditures of

$1.3 million.

It always tries and normally succeeds in limiting expenditures to the income for any given year, thus avoiding an operational deficit and the need to dip into surplus, according to Borough Manager Lisa Peel and solicitor Larry Lashinsky.

The borough levies 3 mills of property tax, generating $360,000 a year, the maximum 0.5 percent earned income tax, generating $180,000 a year, and the maximum local services tax, generating $57,000, according to borough officials and the budget itself.

Among the borough’s financial challenges is the deterioration of a large retaining wall on Main Street, across from the Appvion paper mill, which has necessitated barricades prohibiting vehicles from traveling northbound on Main.

Rather than pay the

$1 million cost of repairing the wall, the borough is buying and razing the homes behind it, so it can slope the embankment and dispense with the wall.

Another financial challenge is the borough building, which is in need of work, according to Lashinsky.

The current council is trying to “clean up” such longstanding issues — and potential problems like library liability — so they do not fester and get worse for later councils, Brumbaugh said.

The library’s annual budget is $102,000, and

56 percent of that comes from local sources, according to Katie Martin, county coordinator for the Blair County Library System.

Library officials should focus on the positive and get busy deciding how they can ensure the institution’s future, according to Peel.

“We’re giving you an asset” that can be used to make that happen, Brumbaugh said.

If the library is to look for grants to help with renovations, it’s better that the building is in its name, according to Brumbaugh.

Grantors wouldn’t allocate money otherwise, and if the library found a willing grantor, there might not be enough time for a transfer to go through before the opportunity disappeared, Brumbaugh said.

Still, contemplating that ownership transfer is “not very comfortable,” according to library board member Linda Steele, who first suggested that the two sides should begin meeting to work out their differences.

Under the current arrangement, the borough is the responsible party for the deficiencies and any problems they cause, Steele said. Under the proposed new arrangement, that all changes, she said — although, according to Lashinsky, board members like Steele wouldn’t be personally liable, unless there were malfeasance.

The library board doesn’t need to worry only about the cost of correcting the building’s deficits, but the threat of lawsuits, such as could occur if someone fell on the porch and got hurt, Steele said.

How much work the library may need to do to the inn and how soon it will need to do it, based on the applicable codes, is hard to define at this point, according to a local licensed code official who preferred that his name not be used.

If the library has a certificate of occupancy and hasn’t done significant work since receiving it, there wouldn’t be an immediate obligation, according to the official.

The Mirror was unable to learn whether such a certificate of occupancy exists.

If the building doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy, and a complaint is made — say about lack of accessibility — it would trigger an evaluation by the borough’s code officer, which would lead to a requirement that the library produce documents so the code officer could evaluate the building’s condition, the code official said.

After such an evaluation, the code officer may provide a certificate of occupancy, but conversely the officers might require upgrades, including safety and accessibility improvements, according to the code official.

If the library undertakes work on the building — regardless of the presence of absence of a certificate of occupancy — it could trigger an obligation for additional work, according to the code official.

Still, code officers won’t require that the building be brought into compliance with current new-building codes, as that is considered unfeasible for old buildings, the code official said.

The meeting ended more optimistically than it began.

“The reality is, tough decisions need to be made,” Lashinsky said.

The library board has promised there will continue to be a library in some form, McIntyre said.

“Let’s get together and figure this out,” Brumbaugh said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.