Thursday, Dec. 12, 2007 | As the year ends, there seems to be some questions emerging about the status of the push to build a new grandiose library downtown. The U-T checked in on the project Tuesday, as did CityBeat on Wednesday.

Though they decline to say where it came from, boosters trying to prop up the edifice are claiming to have received more than $15 million in new pledges from private donors.

Add that to the $3 million boosters have already raised and they’re only, of course, $67 million short of their fundraising goal.

Mel Katz, the vice chairman of the city’s Library Commission and the chief booster, told me many months ago that I would soon enough be “surprised” by their fundraising success in the seasons to come.

I am shocked.

But not about the $15 million. I’m more just stunned that Katz and Co. are still sticking with the $185 million estimate about how much the library is supposedly going to cost to build. CityBeat at least mentioned that the estimate was suspect. The U-T, though, couldn’t muster one word of skepticism or conceive of the possibility that an estimate of construction costs for the library might need updating after, oh, two years of sitting on the shelf.

I’ve gone through all this before but let’s just sum this up. There’s absolutely no way that costs of building a new main library downtown haven’t gone up significantly since late 2005 when they last estimated the costs of the project. And though library boosters express some kind of perplexity about why people aren’t donating to the project, I really don’t know how you could see that as some kind of mystery.

Would you donate to something when its architects refuse to realistically estimate its costs? Katz told me this summer that they had no plans to update the estimate until they had raised enough money to get final go-ahead to build the library. In other words, if you want to know how much the library will cost before you donate to it, you have to donate to it.

And they need a lot of donations.

Yes, of course, I’m bringing back the pizza pie.

Here was my explanation of the pizza:

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.

See, there’s a reason nobody wants to provide a full estimate of how much this thing is going to cost. It’s the unifying theory of major project development in San Diego: Inertia. Once you can get a project rolling, no matter what surprises come up, you’ve got the momentum and nothing can stop it. In other words, if they break ground on the library, start building and then quietly reveal that CCDC or the city is going to pay $30 million more than planned, what are we going to do?

And then there’s my favorite of all jokes in this routine: Mayor Jerry Sanders’ position that he supports it as long as no city funds are used to build it. The mayor’s staff repeated it in the CityBeat piece. It’s classic San Diego: The mayor gets his cake (credit for not spending money and being fiscally responsible) and eats it too (he gets to support the library).

Too bad it is just a hideous argument. The plan now, as is clear in the pizza, calls for CCDC to pay $80 million toward construction of the library. The city likes to pretend that CCDC is some kind of outside corporation that benevolently can shower its riches on downtown infrastructure and that we should all be grateful for whatever they decide to do.

But all CCDC decisions are subject to approval by the City Council. And the mayor is the executive director of the redevelopment agency — CCDC’s boss.

The city could, tomorrow, have CCDC funds redirected to, for example, pay off the debt the city owes on the downtown ballpark.

If we did that, millions would be freed up in the city’s general fund. The city paid more than $19 million in 2007 for the ballpark.

This is money we could use to, say, pay for a new firefighting helicopter, which the mayor estimates will cost $16 million.

In fact, the other day, the mayor announced that we definitely needed a second firefighting helicopter. But, he said, the city couldn’t afford it so we’d have to beg local wealthy people and their businesses to give City Hall some money — a sort of charity cause.

So, in effect, the corporations that haven’t yet been willing to give to the library are going to be asked to subsidize the city’s purchase of a helicopter. This, when the mayor could pay for his own helicopter if he had different priorities.

The corporations might as well just give their money directly to the library boosters.

The only problem is, the library boosters still wouldn’t have enough.

Please contact Scott Lewis (scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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