Although many local taxpayers still have reservations, it’s appearing more likely that voters will have an opportunity to approve or reject a plan to raise local property taxes to fund an expansion for the Lawrence Public Library.
Topping the list of concerns is simply the addition of any new tax burden for local residents. Voters recently approved a local sales tax increase for bus service and street maintenance, and state lawmakers added another 1 percent sales tax this year to balance the state budget. Property valuations are stagnant or declining, which means city and county officials can’t depend on growing valuations to fund growing budgets. It’s a poor time to ask voters to add 1.5 mills to their taxes for 20 years to pay for the library expansion and another half-mill for ongoing operating costs.
That being said, people involved in planning the library expansion have done a good job of addressing community needs. The 20,000-square-foot project would expand the library to 66,500 square feet. The additional space would be used to double the size of the children’s area and provide separate space for young adults — two groups that certainly should be encouraged to visit the library.
The plan would provide room for 100 additional public access computers. Although many of us take home computers for granted, we probably would be surprised at the number of Lawrence residents who don’t have Internet access at home. Providing that access is important.
Meeting space at the library also would double. The library is about the only public space in Lawrence that provides free meeting space. “Free” is the key word. If taxpayers approve this expansion, continuing to provide meeting space at no charge to the public should be part of the deal.
Paying $18 million for 20,000 square feet may not seem like a particularly good investment, but about $4.3 million of that would be used to convert the remaining parking lot space south of the library into a three-level parking garage that would provide double the parking now available in that lot. It is a high-demand parking location, especially in the summer. The new lot would provide much-needed parking for the library, pool and senior center.
It’s reasonable to wonder if the city would be better off using the $18 million to simply build a new library in another location. However, before citizens are asked to vote on this possible expansion of the library at its 707 Vt. location, residents should be informed of other possible downtown area locations and the cost of a similar or larger sized facility compared with the Vermont Street site. Where do taxpayers and library users get the best bang for their dollars?
There seems to be little support, however, for moving the library out of downtown and the cost of purchasing other downtown property would eat up much of that $18 million budget.
The bottom line for this project is closely tied to the city’s financial bottom line. It’s a project that would benefit the community, but it’s not a good time to be adding to the local tax burden.