Chester County Commission votes against bank building purchase

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County will not move forward with letter of intent 

By Holly Roeder
Staff Writer

The Chester County Commission met in a special called meeting Tuesday, April 12 concerning purchase of the former Regions bank building in Henderson for the Chester County Library. Pictured above, Commissioner Andrea Holland clarifies her motion to move forward with a letter of intent. The motion ultimately failed in a 10-7 vote. Photo by Holly Roeder, Independent

The Chester County Mayor and Commissioners met in a special called meeting Tuesday, April 12 concerning the proposed purchase of the former Regions bank building on N. Church Ave., in Henderson, for the relocation of the Chester County Library. All commissioners were in attendance. The motion ultimately failed in a 10-7 vote.
Prior to the library discussion, a budget amendment was addressed regarding questions from a previous meeting concerning sheriff’s department holiday pay and rules and regulations. A motion to approve the amendment was made by District 5 Commissioner Barry Smith and seconded by District 3 Commissioner Carolyn Higgins. The motion passed unanimously.
As Chester County Mayor Barry Hutcherson turned attention to discussion of the bank building, he expressed appreciation at the community’s input and participation. “Thank you for all the ones that wrote your comments and your letters to the commissioners and for the ones that called and voiced your opinion as constituents.” 
He then called on District 3 Commissioner Russell Clayton, chairman of the library committee, who assured attendees the purchase of the bank building had been explored with respect to ARPA, and did meet set guidelines. Having received numerous questions concerning the funds and the various requests for the use of the same, Clayton stated, “I will assure you, with all of the committees, we are negotiating all of it, we want to try to help everyone that we can.
On behalf of the Library/Carl Perkins committee, Clayton addressed the intent to purchase the Regions bank building, saying, “This will open up for some of the other moves that we feel is very necessary; and all the moves that we’re making right now, on the top of the list is to help our young kids…and this would be one way…We’re asking the commissioners to give this a deep consideration for support of our children of Chester County.
“What we’re asking you tonight, commissioners, is we’d like intent to purchase the previously owned Regions bank for the sole purpose of use of the county library, and the committee approved $675,000.” This is lower than the bank’s asking amount of $750,000; however, $63,000 is needed for roof repair, and an additional sum is necessary to move a teller station. Therefore, the committee proposed the previous amount of $675,000. In addition to the letter of intent, submission of one percent earnest, or $6,700, would be required. If Regions Bank accepted the letter of intent, the county and the library would have 60 days for in-depth research, i.e., to obtain quotes, take measurements and determine if additional funds would be necessary for the library’s operation at the bank location. At the end of 60 days, if the decision was made to purchase the building, the earnest funds would go toward the purchase, if a decision was made against the purchase, the funds would be returned as per conditions of the letter of intent.
District 2 Commissioner Andrea Holland made a motion “to go forth with the letter of intent for $675,000 to reserve the bank with the letter of intent for the library.” The motion was seconded by Commissioner Sandra Highers.
As discussion opened, District 5 Commissioner Tim Crowe stood and addressed the Commission and community members in attendance. “Anybody that votes no tonight…we’re being painted with a white brush, that we’re against the library, we’re against the kids. That is not true…We have been forced tonight to make a vote to buy the Regions Bank for the library. I would vote tonight, if I had an opportunity, to remodel and expand the current building, but that’s not put before me tonight. I just simply want to say, for whoever votes no tonight, ask them why they voted no, and I assure you they will tell you it’s not that they are against the library and they are against the children of this county. I give you my 100-percent commitment if this vote passes tonight I will live with it, I will sleep sound tonight; if it fails tonight, I will be committed to helping the library. This is not a vote against the library or against the children of this county. My vote will be against purchasing another brick and mortar building.”
District 1 Commissioner Jerry Lowe shared a quote he had obtained for installation of a fire prevention system, in the amount of $170,784, suggesting the final overall cost of the bank building will total more than one million dollars, all for just 700 additional square feet when compared with the library’s current building.
Expressing concern over not necessarily the building itself, but rather with the urgency of the request, District 4 Commissioner Joe Melaro stated, “My biggest concern with a lot of this, folks, is the speed with which all of a sudden we’re trying to move forward with this now. We do have the time, and with the feasibility study we were very recently given, the guy who wrote the feasibility study says we should look into getting the numbers on everything before we start jumping forward, going ahead…” Melaro referenced the limited amount of ARPA money and more than a dozen requests for funds. “We’ve got to have those conversations of needs versus wants. And the needs – all our departments, all of our officials do a good job of providing the needs. We want to support as much as we can, especially our children, but that’s not just the only way we can support our children, and there’s other things that our library does also, not just for children…a lot of stuff for a lot of adults and other folks in our county who need some help, but there’s a lot of different entities that do that. My recommendation has always been, ‘Let’s get those numbers.’” Melaro said the feasibility study is a good start but is incomplete. “We need to be more prudent with the distribution of funds,” he stressed, “…it just makes sense to get the numbers first, don’t put the cart before the horse…haste makes waste. It needs to be done prudently with an overall plan. 
“This is just one committee,” Melaro continued, “we’ve got over a dozen, probably 18 folks who can certainly use the money and it’s a challenge for us. We need to get dollar figures before we start dedicating money,” noting the danger of running out of funds before addressing all of the requests.
Melaro asked Mayor Hutcherson to share his view of the proposed purchase. “I personally think this would be an excellent idea,” responded Hutcherson, “a great showcase for the county to people coming to our county from north to here. I think it would be a great representation of the county for that to be the library. The library is not just for kids, I know we do say a lot the library is for children, but our library is for everyone,” he continued, relinquishing the floor to Chester County Library Director Savannah Gilbert to share some of the services and programming offered by the local library.
In addition to books, audio books and DVDs, in the previous month the library provided to patrons 947 copies, 32 faxes (including time cards, disability, workers comp, medical and unemployment forms), 19 technology trainings lasting from 15 minutes to one hour, and 115 technology trainings lasting less than 15 minutes (including instructions on saving/printing/sharing photos from phones, filling out online forms). The library also offers programming for all age groups including a weekly story time attended by 30 children plus adults on average. Gilbert pointed out that all programs are offered at no cost. “I try to get every grant that I possibly can, so there is no money coming from the county.” Gilbert has garnered some $38,000 in grants since July 2020.
Space is a valuable and limited resource at the local library, Gilbert indicated. She has seen an increase in the need for meeting space since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic through virtual doctor and lawyer appointments, certain one-on-one type meetings, such as for case workers, and more. With only one conference room, and that of limited size, available meeting options are restricted, growing organizations have had to find new meeting locations due to growth and programs are being held in the main portion of the library, which can be distracting to other patrons. Also, real estate for books themselves is in short supply. Gilbert explained that these conditions result in failure to provide adequate services for the community.
She also provided insight on the short-comings of the current building itself, reporting that expansion would reduce parking by half and humidity is an ongoing fight which results in mold damage and replacement of books, despite the use of multiple dehumidifiers.
Directing attention to the bank building, Gilbert explained that while the actual square footage is not as much as expansion of the library, the layout and smaller spaces better suit the needs of the library, and the drive through and chutes would provide efficiency and convenience in continuing the curbside service, which was implemented during the pandemic. “I know some of you feel that this has been moved on too quickly, but since 2012, Mrs. Nancy Canada has come to you countless times and expressed how badly we need more space. This is not a new problem, this has been going on for years…We’re not going to stop growing. If you want the needs of the community met, you need to help the library.” She concluded with a plea to the commissioners. “Part of the letter of intent is to give us an opportunity before committing, to do more due diligence, to do the research we need, to make sure this truly is the space for the library. Give us a chance to get quotes…a letter of intent just allows us to hold this building so we can do this, and then we have the option to purchase.”
As a point of comparison, Commissioner Clayton shared expansion of the current library location was quoted at $635,000, adding that he was unsure if all costs were included. “We’re talking about roughly a million dollars versus a million dollars for the Regions bank, which is already existing.” 
Patricia Jones followed Gilbert’s presentation with a reminder to the commission that the evening vote was not about the purchase itself, but rather the letter of intent. “I don’t want us to get confused with, we’re voting tonight to ask you for 60 days, we’re not voting tonight to ask you to vote ‘buy regions bank,’ that’s not the question, we’re asking you for 60 days…I’m just here to clarify what Mr. Clayton said, what the motion was…” 
This clarification was followed by a question of whether the commission would return to vote on the decision to purchase or pass in 60 days, which led to a spirited discussion of the components of the motion itself and the legal interpretation thereof. It was decided to amend the motion to read, “motion to go forward with the letter of intent for $675,000 to reserve the bank building for library use for 60 day period with one percent earnest money down, amended to include a final vote by the county commission within 60 days, if the offer is accepted,” amended and seconded by Bailey and Highers, respectively.
From the audience, Chester County resident Carroll Priddy shared his thoughts. “What this is doing as you all know, this thing we thought we were getting for nothing…what it’s doing is dividing this whole county…we’d be better off tonight if we had not even gotten this money, you see what it’s causing, right here in the county, it’s divided, whether it’s 18 of you commissioners, it’s gonna be half and half or might be a tie…it’s too much division to vote on something this important…most important thing about it is it’s tearing this county…it’s just like Washington D.C., it’s trickled down to Chester County and it’s hurting us, we’d been better off if there’d never been any Covid money out there, we’d been better off…and as far as the library, I don’t think anybody, if we didn’t have a library in Chester County and if we were looking for locations to build a library, I don’t think anybody would be interested in building a library where you’re planning to move this one. I was out there this afternoon and it’s a beautiful building, beautiful…tulips…it’s restful. I don’t think you’ll ever get this building out there to ever looking like a library. The asset we’ve got is the location that you’ve got the library, right there by the schools, kids out there playing ball…it’s a village…”
Prior to voting, District 6 Commissioner Terry Bell took a moment to address both Gilbert and his fellow commissioners. “I want to make sure what we’re voting on…trust…if you say it’ll work, I’ll take your word for it,” he said to Gilbert and members of the library committee. “But, what I want most of all is when we get through to the end of this project…I’d like for us as much as possible to, when these votes go forward, be like most of our votes, 18-0; and we may not get there, but we can at least give it a good shot. This community works together, there’s no reason for us to be divided.”
Eight voting for the motion to move forward with the letter of intent were Commissioners (with District number) Andrea Holland (D2) , Ann Moore (D3), Carolyn Higgins (D3), Russell Clayton (D4), Sandra Highers (D4), Diane Jordan (D5) and Terry Bell (D6).
Nays included 10 votes from Commissioners Johnny Garner (D3), Jerry Lowe (D1), Kevin Faulkner (D1), Al McKinnon (D1), Jackie Butler (D2), Jerry Emerson (D4), Joseph Melaro (D4), Barry Smith (D5), Tim Crowe (D5) and Todd Lewis (D6).
Abstaining to vote due to stating a feeling of conflict of interest was library committee member James Alexander (D6).
The motion did not pass with a vote of 10-7. 
The next county commission meeting will be held at 7 p.m. May 9.

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