There are still no easy answers when it comes to a $30 million expansion of the Lawrence Public Library.
But city commissioners on Thursday made it clear there is one answer they don't want to give yet: No.
"I'm not willing to shut the door on it," Mayor Sue Hack said at a study session with members of the library's board of trustees.
The idea of building a new library downtown or expanding the current one - both of which have been estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $30 million - has languished since April's City Commission elections. That's been partially because of a darkening financial picture at City Hall, which has included a slower-than-anticipated growth in sales tax and property tax collections.
Commissioners on Thursday didn't come up with any new ways to pay for a major library project. Instead, they:
- Directed staff members to prepare a detailed report on what decisions need to be made to undertake a significant library project. Commissioners did not set a timeline for the report, but said it should be sooner rather than later.
- l Agreed that any major library project should be put to a citywide vote, because it likely would involve a significant increase in the property tax or sales tax rate of the city.
- l Said that downtown should remain the focus for any new library project. A majority of commissioners also said it made sense for the library to be part of a larger effort to redevelop portions of downtown. Commissioners said a larger, more advanced library could be the type of attraction that would draw more people to downtown, which in turn would help downtown retailers.
Commissioners confirmed that there continues to be significant behind-the-scenes talks regarding downtown redevelopment. Members of the Fritzel family - owners of a longtime Lawrence construction company - have proposed adding significant amounts of retail and residential space to Vermont Street. But all details of the multimillion-dollar plan - which could include expansion of the Eldridge Hotel - haven't been publicly released yet. Hack said more public discussions of downtown redevelopment options likely will begin soon.
Sales tax talk
Any new library project - whether it is part of a public-private partnership or not - will require significant amounts of public funding. Commissioners continued to struggle with how to come up with that money.
Commissioner Mike Amyx said he has to see improvements in the local economy before he's willing to commit to a project.
"We can't just put a timeline on this project," Amyx said. "That wouldn't be a real commitment because we have no way of knowing what the economic picture is going to look like."
Hack said she would be willing to restart discussions about using a new sales tax to fund a library project. That idea previously had been floated, but it failed to gain much momentum after the April elections. Amyx has proposed a half-cent sales tax, but it does not include funding for a library. Instead, it focuses on street and sidewalk projects, and infrastructure improvements designed to attract new jobs.
Hack said Thursday she believes some type of amenity project - either the library or a plan being promoted by citizens to add new recreation facilities to the community - may need to be added to the sales tax plan in order to get voters excited.
Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the next step on a sales tax proposal at a 4 p.m. study session on Monday at City Hall.
Commissioner Boog Highberger said he's also willing to look at ways to fund a library project. He said it is not fair to continue to ask the library to function at a high level in a building that is 35 years old and not large enough to meet Lawrence's population. He also said the City Commission has delayed too long in making a decision on a new downtown library - which has been discussed since 2003.
"I think we have been cheating the library," Highberger said. "I think we're getting way more value from the library than we have a right to expect."
Commissioners Mike Dever and Rob Chestnut also expressed support for a downtown library, although they had questions about how to fund it. Both expressed some interest in creating at least one satellite library to take pressure off the current library. They said a satellite library could be a good stop-gap measure to give the city's finances more time to improve to the point that a major library project would be feasible.
But the other three commissioners did not appear interested in the satellite option. They said the costs for a satellite library may be excessive for a stop-gap measure. They also said that if a satellite location were built in one area of town, there then would be extreme pressure to build an additional satellite in another area of town.
Library leaders pleased
Library leaders said they were pleased with commissioners' comments. John Nalbandian, chairman of the library's board of trustees, said it was important that commissioners agreed to resume serious study of the issue.
"I feel like we're a car idling at an intersection," Nalbandian told commissioners at the beginning of the study session. "We need to decide either to go forward, turn right, turn left, or maybe just pull into the parking lot."
After the meeting, Nalbandian, a former city commissioner, said he thought the project had regained some sense of direction.
"The car is moving forward again," Nalbandian said. "I'm not sure how fast it is moving, but we're pleased that we're moving again."