Not too long ago, I — and a few of you — were surprised by a report from the county grand jury about the city’s push to build a new main library.

The report was pretty bad and I made it clear why I felt it was. But, aside from that, the report also postulated that the library would cost a grand total of about $200 million. I was a bit taken aback by that because I had assumed that there hadn’t been any new estimates of the cost a new main library downtown.

The last estimate, in 2005, had put the cost of the library at $185 million and that’s where it has been since then.

Truth is, it appears the grand jury just made that $200 million number up. I’ll keep looking but I haven’t seen it anywhere else. The guy leading the charge for a new library says he’s never heard of the number.

The issue of whether or not to build a new main library downtown keeps coming up. The grand jury’s report seemed to come out of nowhere. But every once in a while, the Union-Tribune’s editorial board brings it up as well.

So I decided it was time to nail some things down. Where are we with the library? Did the boosters give up? Or, quite the opposite, are the boosters planning another “major announcement?” Are they laying low until it can credibly be claimed that the city has emerged from its financial crisis? How much is the library going to cost? The last estimate is aging. How much have construction costs increased? Where are the wealthy donors? Are they really just waiting for the right time to hand over their multi-million dollar checks?

Over the next few days, assuming I can stay focused, I’m going fact check everything about the new main library proposed for downtown. You’re welcome to come along for the ride. Let’s find out exactly where this stands.

My first stop was with Mel Katz, a member of the board of directors of the foundation that is trying to raise money for the new library from wealthy donors. He’s also chairman of the city’s library commission.

Where are things with the library, I asked?

He said he and his team continue to meet with potential donors. He said that once they have $50 million worth of pledges, they’ll make a major announcement and the City Council will most likely then ask for construction bids.

So how close are they to raising the $50 million?

“I can’t tell you. But it sure is going to surprise you when we announce it,” Katz said.

He knows I haven’t exactly been a friend of the effort. I enjoy talking with him.

I wanted to know where the grand jury got the $200 million number as the price of library’s construction.

“I have no idea,” Katz said.

Would he be getting another estimate sometime soon? After all, the last estimate on the cost of building a new library was $185 million in late 2005. Are we really to believe that the rise in construction costs has not affected the kinds of materials needed to build new libraries?

Katz said they had no plans to get a new estimate for the library project.

He said that once he had raised $50 million from donors, the City Council would get a bid from a contractor who would supposedly be locked into that bid. So the costs of the project would be capped.

“Why do an estimate now when maybe in the next five months, we’re going to put it out to bid and get an actual cost?” Katz said.

So in five months they’ll make that announcement?

“I just threw that out,” he said. “If I was to point to any mistake we’ve made in this project it’s putting artificial deadlines on it.”

But this is an interesting point. To me, donors to a major project like this should know how much the whole project is going to cost so they can gauge its value. But Katz appears to want them to commit to giving before they could get an update on the entire expense of the project. In fact, they have to give just to get the project to the point where they will know how much it’s all going to cost.

“The line we keep hearing from major potential donors is: ‘If I knew the project was moving ahead, I’d be putting money in,’” Katz said. He said that when they reached the $50 million, they could start providing some of that assurance.

In other words, only by raising the money can they get the process going again and only by doing that can they find out how much the whole project is going to cost.

Let’s say my parents offered to help me buy a home (I wish). So I asked them to give me $25,000 for a house I wanted to buy. If my dad asked me how much the whole house was going to cost and I told him I couldn’t tell him until he gave me the money, he’d tell me to pound sand.

Actually, he wouldn’t tell me anything like that because I’d never ask him to do that in the first place.

So here’s where we stand now:

Let’s think of the funding needed for the library as a giant pizza pie.

If the pizza isn’t quite clear, here’s how to understand it: The old estimate for the library is that it will cost $185 million. That’s up from the first estimate of $149 million. The city has $20 million waiting for it from the state of California in the form of a grant. The Centre City Development Corp., which is really just the city of San Diego, plans to chip in $80 million. David Copley and another donor have pledged $3 million.

That leaves, right now, big question marks over who’s going to supply the remaining $82 million.

And, you’ll notice, there’s an extra slice of pizza someone will have to eat. This represents the increased construction costs. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that if Katz raises enough money to get the project started, then the city or CCDC will swoop in to cover any increased cost.

Katz told me that’s not true. He’s expecting only a minimal increased cost, which he says can be covered by a few more donations from wealthy local philanthropists.

So, my next step will be to learn everything I can about how much construction costs really have increased in that period. I’ve got a few leads but if you have any ideas as well, I could use them.

Ready, set, go: Library Week 2007.


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