Concerns about potential ill effects of mold exposure prompt County Commission to vote unanimously to allow planning for a new library to proceed
After debating whether to keep the Venice Public Library operating through season, the Sarasota County commissioners agreed on Jan. 12 that the potential for ill health in patrons, volunteers and staff exposed to mold in the facility made the closing the prudent act.
As a result of the unanimous vote, Jan. 30 will be the final day the library opens its doors. Planning will get under way — including community workshops — for a new facility, Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historic resources, told the board.
As an attorney, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out, he has handled cases involving health problems resulting from mold exposure. Most people find symptoms disappear when they no longer are around the fungi, he said, but “we have staff [in the library] that are there for long periods of time, day after day, eight or 10 hours a day …”
Further, Hines noted, Kalajian recommended the closing, based on concerns that investigations thus far have not been able to determine the source of water in the facility that is contributing to mold growth.
Kalajian also pointed out to the board that mold remediation could cost about $1 million, while dealing with the water source could lead to the expenditure of another $2 million to $3 million, with no guarantee that an effective solution could be found.
Nonetheless, as the board members discussed their alternatives, Commissioner Carolyn Mason pointed out, “We’re damned if we do; we’ll be damned if we don’t,” producing a few ripples of laughter among audience members in the Commission Chambers of the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice.
“I don’t frankly see that we’re in a position to really roll the dice,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo added. While he does not have “the scientific background to hackle about what is and what is not a health concern,” he continued, “I don’t see how you don’t act responsibly.”
The back story
In her presentation to the board during its Jan. 12 regular meeting, Kalajian explained that since the library opened in 1965 at 300 Nokomis Ave. S. on the island of Venice, it has been expanded and renovated numerous times.
A memo she provided to the board in advance of the meeting said, “Environmental studies conducted in 2010 identified elevated humidity levels with mold growth under the carpet floor in the library meeting room. Mitigation of that space was completed, including treating and sealing the floor, replacement of the carpet, and upgrades to the [air conditioning system].”
In 2014, the memo continued, after further environmental studies indicated elevated moisture in the slab under the meeting room, that area of the library was closed. Additional investigation in other areas of the library, it noted, “indicated high moisture levels in the building slab, with [the] existing [air conditioning system] inadequate to manage the elevated humidity.”
As subsequent analysis has been unable to determine the primary source of the problem, the memo said, additional studies will necessitate opening walls and ceilings and pulling up flooring, and none of that can be done while the library is open.
In the wake of the closing, Kalajian recommended that a kiosk be placed in the nearby Venice Community Center — another county facility — to enable library patrons to drop off and pick up items. “A computer station and staff [will] also be available to assist [the public] with searching for and ordering items,” her staff memo noted.
Additionally, staff will provide information about other county libraries, including the Jacaranda Public Library, which is 5.7 miles from the current facility, she said.
Pros and cons
When Commissioner Christine Robinson asked why the Venice Library should be closed right away, with season just starting, Kalajian replied, “I would point out that our first priority is the well being of people coming to visit the library as well as our volunteers and staff that work there every day. While the conditions indicate that probably [only those] with heightened sensitivities [to mold] may have a reaction, we don’t want to wait,” with the potential for the situation to worsen.
In response to a question from Caragiulo, she said all the materials in the library “will be cleaned and sanitized” before they are utilized in another facility.
During public comments at the beginning of the meeting, five people urged the board to keep the library open, while a sixth offered alternative space for patrons until the county has been able to establish a regular temporary facility or a new building.
Pointing out that she has been a Venice resident for 31 years, Lueanne Wood called the Venice Public Library “the heart and soul of our community.”
Jacqueline Mideo, a part-time resident of the city, told the board she was concerned about the fact that “very little notice to the public” was provided in advance of the Jan. 12 discussion, a situation that had led to an “atmosphere of mistrust.”
A.J. Metzgar of Venice, who talked of his late mother’s long-time involvement with the library, told the board, “I’m terribly allergic to mold. I go to the library three or four times a week. I’ve flipped through hundreds of books. I’ve never so much as sniffled at that library.”
The issue of the mold, he added, has been “blown way out of proportion.”
Speaking on behalf of Triple Diamond Commercial Properties in Venice, Brad Lindberg of the Sperry Van Ness Commercial Advisory Group in Sarasota, offered up to 20,000 square feet in the Merrill Lynch building at 871 Venetia Bay Blvd. for a temporary library. He pointed out that the structure is adjacent to the Legacy Trail and close to Patriots Park.
When Robinson pressed Kalajian about the recommendation to shut the doors at the end of the month, Kalajian explained that the sooner the facility is closed, the sooner she and her staff can begin planning for a new library. “I’m quite honestly looking forward to that process.”
Kalajian also pointed out that modifications to the facility have resulted in a diminution of its “interior operational functionality.” She indicated that the design of the new library can encompass features that will better meet the needs of modern library users.
Her memo to the board explained that a new facility could be created by purchasing an exiting building or through construction on the current site or another parcel.
Concerns about mold
During the board’s discussion, Chair Al Maio said his wife, who is a regular patron of the library, has suffered no problems. However, he continued, after he recently participated in a 90-minute session in the room identified as the one most affected by mold, “I had a very bad night.” That could have been a result of his exposure to cigarette smoke or animal allergens on people’s clothing, he acknowledged. Nonetheless, he said, during his career-long involvement with construction projects, “I have opened walls and found such black mold that I sent everyone running out of the building …”
“How often have we been testing the building for health concerns?” Robinson asked Kalajian, “and is it complex to do that?”
Testing has been ongoing, Kalajian responded, “and it is not simple.”
Jeff Lowdermilk, director of facilities and fleet in the county’s Public Works Department, told the board that testing was undertaken in March and September; the latest sampling was done on Dec. 23. “The situation does not appear to be getting any worse,” he added, “but it certainly doesn’t appear to be getting any better.”
He concurred with Kalajian’s recommendation to close the building.
In a Jan. 11 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Dianne M. Shipley, public information and communication coordinator with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, said representatives of that agency were brought in for consultation with county employees, to provide technical expertise, as the department has an indoor air quality program. “We don’t have an enforcement capacity,” she noted.
Health Department staff members reviewed a report on the library that was prepared by an industrial hygienist, she added, and they responded to county staff during a question-and-answer session that lasted about 90 minutes on May 20, 2015, focusing on the health effects of mold exposure.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website says molds can produce symptoms ranging from nasal stuffiness to eye irritation to wheezing in people who are sensitive to the fungi. “Severe reactions may occur among workers exposed to large amounts of mold in occupational settings,” it adds. Those can include fever and shortness of breath. In 2004, the CDC material continues, the Institute of Medicine “found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people,” and with asthma symptoms in people with asthma.
Just prior to the vote, Robinson noted the library was her first stop when she visited Venice before moving to the city, adding that a library is a very good indicator of community attributes.
“This is a big deal,” Maio said.
Hines made the motion to accept the recommendation to close the library; Mason seconded it.
“It’s more than just a library,” Hines pointed out. “It’s truly a community center.”
Still, Hines noted, while no one has complained so far about health problems as a result of exposure to the mold, if the board kept the facility open and such a situation arose, the board would be accused of “putting the public at risk.”