Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 | Every few weeks, for whatever reason, San Diego’s attention steers toward construction of a new central library. How the ambitious proposal has been able to stay on the radar of a city so badly crippled and distracted is a testament to the passion and power of its supporters.

These city boosters always bring up the same point when discussing the new library: That it won’t cost us a thing.

As City Councilman Jim Madaffer wrote last December in The San Diego Union-Tribune – itself an unabashed supporter of the project – taxpayers need not worry about a thing when it comes to paying for the new library:

“Funding for the main library comes from non-city sources including a state library construction grant, downtown redevelopment funds and private donations,” Madaffer wrote.

What’s more, supporters like Madaffer claim that a new library won’t cost any additional funds to operate and that it won’t strain an already suffering library system in the city.

Call us dubious of those claims. The architects of this proposal – Madaffer, former Mayor Dick Murphy, former Deputy City Manager Bruce Herring and others – don’t exactly have the cleanest track record when it comes to finances. No city leader has yet been able to craft solutions to the massive financial problems that Murphy, Madaffer and Herring have given us. That should not instill confidence in anyone that this library proposal is any safer than any of the other deals they left us with.

And to say that money for the new main library will not come from “city sources” is only a continuation of this crew’s lack of sincerity about financial issues. Downtown San Diego is certainly part of the city of San Diego and tax dollars from downtown will be used to make an infusion of at least $80 million to construct the new library.

There’s nothing about calling them “downtown redevelopment funds” that makes these funds any less important to the city’s fiscal health. They aren’t extra, bonus funds available to be spent just on luxuries.

Yet such an expenditure on a library would be one thing if downtown, and the rest of the city for that matter, were supported by a well-maintained and uncompromised infrastructure. Unfortunately, downtown and the city do not have the infrastructure – the fire stations, sewers and police stations – they need to support their burgeoning populations. What’s more, in addition to the looming liabilities of its retiree health care and pension benefits, the city faces a massive deficit in so-called “deferred maintenance” – the facilities and equipment that have been so badly neglected that to fix them would cost up to $1 billion.

In the face of these problems, it is patently false to say that we somehow have extra funds available for a luxury that is having trouble gaining support.

And it is having trouble gaining support. Library boosters say that another $85 million of the funds needed to construct the new downtown facility will come from private donations. This is a gigantic sum. But only $3 million of it has so far been raised.

Even with an enormous infusion of philanthropy, it’s uncertain that enough funding will have been collected to support construction of the ambitious project. Construction costs are only getting steeper. Taxpayers will be on the hook if the project faces construction budget overruns.

Library supporters have tried as many gimmicks as possible to lower the cost of the project. They claim to have “value-engineered” the proposal by using cheaper concrete, not finishing construction on two of the planned eight floors, delaying construction of the auditorium envisioned in the proposal and using old furniture. One wonders if they would ultimately decide to construct a hollow building, if only to have accomplished construction of something.

Finally, the worst of the claims is that the new library will not cost any more to operate than the current 51-year-old building downtown. Madaffer often says that the city’s consultant believes that it won’t cost a cent more to staff the newer, bigger library. It can be staffed with the same number of employees as the current facility.

Sure, the consultant told a report in December, but they would be worked to death.

Meanwhile, library hours at branches across the city have been cut. The managers of these facilities cannot look forward to rosier budget seasons in the future as Mayor Jerry Sanders wrestles with liabilities that have generated nationwide notoriety for the city.

If the new library’s most adamant supporters – including the Union-Tribune – would like a new library, they should come up with an honest proposal to pay for it. It is an insult to San Diego taxpayers to continue to assert that the project would either not cost anything or be paid for with some kind of special savings.

San Diego taxpayers have had enough of those.

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