For a Better Commute. For Better Connected Communities in Prince William & Stafford, Va.

Is Now the Right Time to Build 2 New Libraries?

WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Jean Westcott said a Burger King is a place to eat, not a place for high school teens to hang out after class.

The Montclair resident had two children recently graduate from Forest Park High School, next to the Lake Montclair Shopping Center.

Today, that is where may teens head after school, she said.

“The kids pour into Burger King because the school is being used at almost all hours of the day, after school, up until 11 o’clock, and there’s no where else for them to go other than a store,” said Westcott. “As a taxpayer, I like to have my government provide a public space for my kids to hang out.”

She wants a new library built behind the shopping center so both children and adults can go check out books, access the internet on public computers, as well as have community meetings. A $14 million Montclair library is slated to be built behind the shopping center. Voters approved it, and the construction of an $11 million full-service library in Gainesivlle in 2006, replacing the small neighborhood library that now serves the rapidly growing area.

Plans for the libraries have been on the books for the past 20 years, and now as much as $4 million has gone into the design and development of the buildings right down to the interior treatments and furnishings. Now, after years of putting off the construction and debate over whether or not to build them, Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart says the time is right to build both.

“Things are getting better but the economy, but it is not yet humming along. But when construction picks back up the cost of building materials will rise,” he said.

In addition to the libraries, Stewart wants to restore funding for a police and fire and rescue worker staffing plan that was drastically cut with the onset of the Great Recession in 2008.

The county funds these projects, and many other things, with funds garnered from property taxes. At the current advertised tax rate of $1.158 per every $100 assessed value of homes to fund the fiscal year 2015 budget taking effect July 1, the libraries can be built and public safety funding restored, but Stewart admits “it will be tight.”

Widely used, overcrowed

Members on the county’s Library Board say they’re more than just books. The libaries are centers of community where people go to apply for jobs via the web, do group research projects for school, even telework. So many people are using libraries these days that those who work there are turning people away from special events like daytime children’s reading sessions, said Library Director Constance Gilman.

Some of the larger libraries are also overcrowded.

“We know where the growth has been, on the west end [of Prince William County] and in Montclair, and it will continue to grow where with the Potomac Communities expansion,” said Library Foundation President Bryanna Altman. “In Lake Ridge, where I live, the Chinn Center Library is crowded due to so much overflow.”

There hasn’t been a new, full-service library built in Prince William County since the Bull Run Regional Library opened near Manassas in 1995. Before that, Chinn Center Library opened in 1991. The county has opened smaller “neighborhood” libraries at a reduced costs to serve communities, and officials say their continued operation needs to be reviewed if more full-service libraries are to be built.

Libraries or smaller class sizes?

Many say libraries are a good idea if they’re modern and serve the community, but add county money could better be used elsewhere, like reducing the class sizes in the public schools. Prince William boasts the highest student to teacher ratio of any jurisdiction in the Washington area.

“I have not seen a flat tax that you’ve promised, and When you look at this year’s budget versus what we spent last year, I don’t see any department that has taken a cut. When we have student teacher ratios through the roof, why are we talking about building new libraries?” asked Shaun Landry, of Haymarket.

Others said county officials need to set their priorities and then spend taxpayer money accordingly. A decision by the Board of Supervisors late last year to pay for the burial of power lines along a stretch of U.S. 1 in Woodbridge was dubbed scatterbrained. Instead of making the roadway more aesthetically pleasing, they argue the money could have went to pay for new libraries.

“This board works in a schizophrenic ways,” said Prince William resident Mac Haddow. “This board needs to get out of this siloed, hunkered down, ‘every time there is a dollar on the table we have to spend it’ mentality.”

The Board of Supervisors is expected to hold a public hearing later this month for the budget. Afterward, it will approve a final tax rate and approve a projected $976 million budget for the coming year.

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