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Monday, December 19, 2005 | Supporters of a new flagship library for downtown are tailoring their message to fit new realities of the city of San Diego’s financial crisis just as they enter a crucial period of attracting philanthropists to the effort.
A new report showing the cost estimates rising for the library has left supporters claiming that the new library will not cost any more to operate and, in fact, may save the city money. They also say they’ll respond to worries about the library’s cost through savvy management.
But at a time when all city departments – including the library system – are cutting jobs and costs to close an ever-widening budget gap, critics say the city should wait until its many fiscal problems are solved before embarking on such an ambitious effort.
Three years and one fiscal crisis later, the drive for a flagship downtown library chugs on.
The City Council first approved plans for a new central library in 2002. At that relatively stable point in the city’s history, some worried whether the city could bear the burden of a library system overhaul package priced at $312 million. The centerpiece: A $150 million futuristic-looking hub.
Today, a fiscal crisis grips the city. Its new mayor regularly talked about the specter of bankruptcy on the campaign trail. The city can’t sell the $177 million in bonds that was to cover more than half of the library overhaul package because its credit rating is suspended. A pension system and other neglected needs force the city to continually trim the basic services offered to its residents.
But library backers remain optimistic – even in the face of a new report issued this month that bumped the flagship library’s construction costs up 24 percent, to $185 million. The library can be built without touching the city’s strained tills, they say.
The money to build the behemoth will come from other governmental bodies and philanthropists. The report predicts that the new library, which is expected to generate a considerable up tick in visitors, can survive on its existing budget for staff.
It’s a claim that has library supporters rejoicing and skeptics bewildered.
“I find it completely unbelievable that there will be no additional operating cost for the new central library,” said April Boling, a member of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association’s executive committee.
The new library report states that San Jose saw a 75-percent increase in visitors when its new library opened. Seattle’s new central library increased foot traffic by 250 percent, according to the report.
Similarly, San Diego’s new library is expected to draw more people than its predecessor. Library backers and the updated construction estimate state that the city’s consultant believes it’s possible to staff the new building with the same number of employees who work at the existing downtown library.
They say it’s not ideal to open the new library at such staff levels, but it can be done.
Bob Rohlf, the Minneapolis-based consultant cited in the staff report, confirmed in an interview that it was, indeed, possible. However, he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“You could. I would hope you don’t simply because the staff will be worked to death,” he said. Rohlf also said it was nearly impossible to predict what staffing level will be adequate without knowing how many visitors the library will attract.
It’s this uncertainty that worries Boling and others who stress that every free cent the city has must go to paying down a ballooning pension deficit and other long-neglected basics. The deficit is estimated to be more than $1.37 billion and is central to a number of local and federal investigations. It threatens to consume city budgets for years to come absent significant reform and has led civic leaders to seriously weigh the prospects of the municipal bankruptcy.
The city’s fiscal crisis has hit the library system, too.
Sixty-five of the department’s 471 jobs have been eliminated since 2003. The downtown central library stayed open 64 hours a week in 2004; this year its doors are open 52 hours a week.
The department’s technology budget dropped $800,000 to $1.8 million this year. And, in what is becoming an annual tradition, the City Council earlier this year waived a city ordinance that compels it to contribute a certain percentage of its annual budget – what would have been $14 million this year – to library needs beyond what is in the system’s budget. The funds went to closing the gap in the city’s day-to-day operating budget.
Some of the new libraries envisioned in the 2002 library overhaul remain on the backburner as the city struggles to regain the confidence of Wall Street so that bonds can again be sold. Construction of the new central library itself has been delayed as philanthropy efforts haven’t produced the money needed to break ground.
But library boosters say the library is a long-term project that shouldn’t be deferred because of the city’s current fiscal troubles.
Anna Tatar, the city’s library director, said the new library will utilize a number of technologies that allow it to shrink its staffing needs, such as automated book sorters and unmanned check-out stands. Library supporters also say a bookstore and coffee shop provide the opportunity for the new facility to generate money.
“There would be some people that say this library will cost more to operate, I would tell you that it will cost less. And we will operate with a staff that is not quite ideal,” said City Councilman Jim Madaffer.
He takes the long view: “This is a 100-year project. I’m not going to let the myopia damage the macro picture. San Diegans deserve a gift to themselves.”
The councilman said he hopes one of the private donors will set up an endowment to help cover the annual operating expenses.
Library supporters have a new, powerful ally: recently elected Mayor Jerry Sanders. He supports the construction of the library and has offered to assist in the fund-raising drive. However, spokesman Fred Sainz said the new administration will study the project’s true strain on the city budget and determine if it is a worthy priority.
“We are doubtful that it will not increase costs to the general fund but we simply don’t have all of the facts before us,” Sainz said. “We campaigned upon a promise of transparency and we want to make sure that everybody knows what this is going to cost.”
Supporters’ claims that the new library can be staffed at existing levels won’t play into the equation.
“We’re not building this place to be a barebones library, so you will need more staff. We don’t know what those costs are going to be and they also have to be balanced against other costs the city has,” Sainz said.
But before those costs can even be considered, library supporters must first dig up the cash to cover construction. The $185-million building will be funded by a number of sources. The Centre City Development Corp., the city’s redevelopment arm, has promised $80 million. A state grant of $20 million has been secured. Private philanthropists have contributed $3 million. The list of donors includes David Copley, publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper. The paper’s editorial page has supported the project.
That leaves $82 million more to be raised through philanthropy, a number that grew from $47 million before the new price estimate was released. Still, supporters remain positive.
Last April, city officials said they needed to raise $30 million by September in order for the project to work. But after that date passed, fund-raisers said philanthropists wanted to see a new cost estimate before pledging any money.
Mel Katz, a board member of the San Diego Public Library Foundation, said he believes that the philanthropic effort picks up with the new cost projections finished. He said the foundation hopes to make announcements in the coming months regarding fund-raising.
With the new cost estimate came a new construction date: July 2006. Officials had hoped to begin this year. Katz said it will probably take about $40 million in fund-raising to get the project rolling.
“I’m very optimistic. There is still real interest in this project. People realize the need for a real main library,” he said.
Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.
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