CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council voted Monday night to let residents decide in November on a library renovation and expansion project that could cost more than $8 million.

The council had decided last month to start a six-month “public engagement” process leading up to a council vote in October on whether to fund the Thomas Memorial Library project. Many residents were upset by that plan, saying it went against the council’s goal of putting the matter up for a townwide vote in November.

The idea of renovating and expanding the library has been discussed in town for years. A 2009 report by a study committee listed more than 100 deficiencies, from unreliable wheelchair lifts to a faulty heating system and a leaking roof. The renovation could be funded by a combination of private donations and tax money.

Town councilors who support sending the question to voters said conversations about the merits of the renovation would be overshadowed by the issue of who would make the decision on the project, which does not have a final design plan or price.

The move to a referendum was opposed by Councilors Katharine Ray and David Sherman Jr.

Sherman said councilors are elected to make such decisions, although he thinks “there’s an expectation among voters that there will be (public) votes on projects like this.”

The council also voted Monday to hold a workshop June 4 to discuss an amendment to the town charter that would trigger a townwide vote on any capital expenditure over a certain amount. That amount will be part of the council’s discussion.

The council will also discuss the language for the library question that will appear on the November ballot.

Council Chairwoman Sara Lennon said there is a misconception among residents that plans for the library project are more developed than they actually are.

She said the council would like to have more input from residents, and has scheduled a “community conversation” about the library for May 31. The informal public discussion will begin at 7 p.m. in council chambers.

“We really want to have as many minds on this as possible,” Lennon said.

Councilor James Walsh said he voted in favor of holding a referendum because the issue of who will decide on the project has been “in the forefront of people’s conversations.”

“I just believe at this point the climate is such that a referendum is the only way to put this in front of the voters,” he said.

Councilor Jessica Sullivan said she supports the referendum because the issue of who will decide on the project has been a distraction. A referendum will help people understand the problems at the library, she said.

“It just sort of mushroomed into this other issue,” she said. “I want the discussion to go back to the issue, which is truly our library.”

Also Monday, the council approved a $32.2 million spending plan for 2012-13 that includes 3 percent increases in both school and town spending. The $21.7 million school budget will be considered for final approval by voters on June 12.

The budgets require a 4.4 percent tax increase. That would raise the property-tax rate from $15.18 to $15.85 per $1,000 of assessed value. That equates to a $210 increase on the tax bill for a $314,000 home, the median assessed value in Cape Elizabeth.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: [email protected]

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