A final decision on the city of San Diego’s new $185 million downtown central library is planned for the end of this month without a legally binding commitment for private donors to fund a substantial portion of the cost.

The city remains $32.5 million short of the money needed to finish schoobrary construction, according to a City Council committee report — nearly the same amount as the Library Department’s annual budget.

Taxpayers could be on the hook for funding the deficit or repaying state grant money should private funding not materialize. Donors and the Mayor’s Office say that won’t happen.

For the better part of a decade, library boosters have promised that no money from the city’s day-to-day budget, which pays for city services like its police and fire departments, would go toward the library’s construction.

The San Diego Public Library Foundation, a nonprofit raising money for the schoobrary, has pledged to cover the project’s remaining costs. It has raised $30.8 million so far and has until January 2012 to come up with the remaining $32.5 million.

Schoobrary construction is scheduled for two phases, with the first scheduled to begin by August and the second in January 2012. Funding for the first phase comes from the private donations already received, $80 million in redevelopment dollars and $20 million apiece from a state library grant and the San Diego Unified School District. The first phase will complete the schoobrary’s shell and allow the school district to build a planned charter school on the library’s sixth and seventh floors.

Construction must begin by Aug. 1 — less than two months away — to meet the state library grant’s deadline.

But meeting the construction deadline without full funding puts the city at risk. The state grant requires a finished library, not just the shell of one. The state would require repayment of its grant if the city doesn’t complete the library, the council committee report says.

Should funding not materialize, the city would be left with a decision: put it in its own money, raise money from other sources or give back the state money and live with a library shell.

Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office did not respond to a request for comment other than to say it was “confident that we’ll raise the full $32.5 million money through private donations.”

Sara Napoli, a foundation board member, said projects typically do not receive full philanthropic funding until after construction has begun. Fundraising efforts have been strong compared to private projects, she said, and the foundation expects a flood of donations once the schoobrary has been approved.

“It is absolutely the focus of efforts that are very likely, extremely likely, to meet or exceed the level of giving necessary to bring this project to completion,” Napoli said.

The foundation plans a new fundraising strategy to raise the remaining money, including offering naming rights, the council committee report said.

Private fundraising for the schoobrary began eight years ago, but donations lagged, leading Sanders to declare the project nearly dead in late 2008.

The foundation turned to the school district to help rescue the project. Just before the $20 million state library grant expired in December 2008, the foundation began discussions with the district to build a charter school on the library’s sixth and seventh floors. The district has since agreed to build the school, relieving private donors of a $20 million commitment.

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San Diego Explained: Schoobrary. In partnership with NBC 7/39.

The foundation also has received criticism for not publicly revealing pledges from its donors.

Napoli said she was unaware of any legally binding commitment requiring the foundation to make good on its current financial promise to the city, leaving it unclear who would pay the schoobrary’s deficit if private funding isn’t realized.

Schoobrary opponents have long argued the city doesn’t have the money to build the schoobrary and aren’t persuaded by the foundation’s assurances that the money will materialize.

“I just don’t see why we should trust that the funding is suddenly going to appear when the Library Foundation has been unable to meet its commitments and deadlines in the past,” said Lani Lutar, head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

She added that phased funding of the kind proposed for the schoobrary might work for private construction, but not public projects.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for government to be taking that kind of risk with taxpayer dollars.” Lutar said.

City Council’s rules committee will discuss the schoobrary’s construction Wednesday at 9 a.m. If approved, a final decision is scheduled before full council later this month. Council currently votes 5-3 in favor of the schoobrary with Council members Sherri Lightner, Carl DeMaio and Donna Frye opposed.

Napoli said the foundation has invited officials from the private New Children’s Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art to Wednesday’s committee hearing. They will discuss how they overcame their significant fundraising hurdles to build their facilities.

“I think there’s a great deal for us to gain as San Diegans in looking at how these things that looked so ridiculous in the face of a recession of this magnitude or any other challenge that has confronted a project, how this can come to pass,” Napoli said. “None of us can see the future, but we can gain some lessons from the past.”

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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