Wednesday, April 20, 2005 | The plan to construct a $150 million downtown library lived to see another day Tuesday, although its final survival is still a matter of some suspense.
With rising construction and consulting costs and a dismal budget outlook outlining the discussion, the City Council voted 8-to-1 to accept the promise of $80 million from its downtown redevelopment agency and authorize more expensive contracts for the plan’s consultants. Councilwoman Donna Frye cast the sole dissention.
Supporters heralded the move as a sign to philanthropists that the city is serious about going forward. Private donors must bequest $30 million by September to make the library a reality; construction would start this year. However, skepticism surrounded claims that the new flagship library, to be Mayor Dick Murphy’s legacy, won’t touch the city’s general budget.
“I have a lingering feeling city taxpayers are going to be on the hook for this as we have been for projects in the past,” said Mission Hills resident Tim Holmberg.
The city has been promised $80 million from the Centre City Development Corp., its downtown redevelopment arm; $20 million in a state grant; and $3 million in private donations. The library must be completed by the end of 2008 to comply with the conditions of the state grant. All told, private donors will be asked to pitch in $50 million.
“I think a main library is part of our civic culture, and I think a main library is the only way to have a library system that works,” said Councilman Ralph Inzunza.
Officials stressed that there would be no new costs to the city’s general fund – its day-to-day operating budget – in constructing the library. But it was estimated when the library plan originally passed in 2002 that it would cost the general fund an additional $4 million annually for additional staff and maintenance once it opens in 2008.
Deputy City Manager Bruce Herring said the city has a number of years to come up with ways to close this funding difference, possibly by keeping staffing levels the same or by subletting floors that will be vacant pending expansion.
It was this same sort of future budgeting that many of the council members and business community derided last week when they opposed the living wage ordinance.
And in contrast to the living wage discussion last week, it was obvious from cheery materials presented to the public and council that city staff supported the library plan. Conversely, last week public material presented for living wage omitted any discussion of the potential positives of a measure that raised slightly the salaries of some of the region’s lowest-paid government workers.
Also absent were the business community’s dire warnings during last week’s debate that any added costs to future city budgets would be a travesty.
Supporters say the central library, a half century old, is inadequate in size and high-tech capabilities to serve a city that’s experienced a grand population explosion in that time.
“I can’t think of anything more exciting than a downtown library,” Councilman Tony Young said.
The nine-story, 496,000-square-foot library would be built at the corner of 12th Avenue and J Street. It is to feature a technology center; three-story domed reading room; outdoor plaza and café; and 400-seat, west-facing, multi-purpose room.
“We are very close to fulfilling that dream,” Murphy said.
It was originally approved with much fanfare on Nov. 18, 2002, as part of a $312 million overhaul to the entire library system. Earlier that day the council quietly approved a deal with its pension board to continue underfunding its pension plan in exchange for increased retirement benefits for city employees. The deal is now central in criminal investigations being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and also is a factor in the plan’s $1.37 billion deficit.
The pension debt and the city’s related budget problems have forced delays in some of the branch libraries that were to be constructed as part of the overhaul, and could ultimately derail the plan. In recent years, the City Council has been forced to continually cut library hours and staff to close budget gaps. Just yesterday the council voted to allocate $14 million pledged to libraries to other sources.
“In all candor, I’m having some problems with the fiscal issues right now,” Councilman Brian Maienschein said.
Construction costs have risen 28 percent since the council first approved the plan. Herring said original estimates did include some buffer room for increased construction costs. Additionally, plans to build a 350-seat auditorium have been put on hold. Herring said a creative new type of concrete would also be used, saving the city $4 million. Some furniture from the current library would also be used in the new building to cut costs.
Councilwoman Donna Frye compared the library plan to promises that Petco Park would pay for itself. “This isn’t a free library. And it is going to have an impact, and it is going to cost people money, and with all my heart I wish I could sit here and tell you otherwise.”
Part of what the council approved was an additional $2 million to the contract of architects Rob Wellington Quigley and Tucker Sadler & Associates. Harold Sadler, founding chairman of the latter firm, also serves as chairman of the CCDC board and was fined $6,000 last year for failing to state his financial interest in the project and voting on three CCDC actions directly related to downtown library financing.
In the end, said former councilwoman Judy McCarty, the council would regret letting the opportunity to build the long-planned downtown library slip away.
“There’s never enough money for libraries,” she said.
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