Don't expect immediate library funding

February 1, 2016

Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham, the building for which is owned by the city, recently received unanimous approval from the city commission for a $162,920 proposal for design development and construction drawings for the first phase of a proposed renovation project, which is intended to be done in three phases, for an estimated total of about $6.4 million. 

Compared to previous grandiose plans, with an extravagant price tag of some $21.5 million, which Birmingham voters overwhelmingly rejected in May 2014, during this go around library officials are offering up a significantly more modest proposal, for which conceptual plans are in the midst of being drawn up.

In general terms, which is all anyone has offered at this point, the first phase includes a proposed renovation of the library's adult services area. Phase two would have the youth room renovated and expanded; new furniture and fixtures; and renovation of restrooms. Phase three would involve renovating the circulation area and commons area; developing a new entry area, which library officials would ideally like to have at street level with the addition of an elevator; and installation of a skylight to the 1927 building where it meets the 1960 and 1981 additions to provide natural light to the interior.

The library, first built in 1927, may be in need of more than just some paint and new carpeting, but any talk of renovation needs much more discussion before library and/or city funds are allocated for actual construction. 

The problem in 2014 was the library board and library director Doug Koschik got more than carried away with its plan to completely redesign the library, with a two-story glass front stretching the length of Merrill Street, and many suggested it didn't appropriately address some of the library's 21st century needs. And the bond to pay for it was excessive and found extreme by most residents. 

The new plans, still under development, are more moderate, we are told. Hopefully the library is taking residents' financial concerns, as well as their desires for an improved library, under advisement. 

But there have been some unsettling signs that perhaps the library board and some city commissioners may not have understood where voters were coming from when they rejected the last proposed project. That may explain why a few city commissioners, one of whom had been a library board member before the last city commission election, appear gung ho and outwardly supportive of the newly envisioned project, no matter how scant the details at this point. Koschik himself raised the hairs on at least one commissioner's head – Stuart Sherman – along with ours, when he told the commission, “There is definitely an expectation that this project will move ahead in the near future, that a funding mechanism will be found.”

To that we say, hold everything. The library must understand the budgeting process, and that long-range projects can take three to five years to be fully financed – before they're approved to move forward, as was done with the new Chesterfield fire station, which is finally beginning construction this summer.

Equally important, while the library technically has a higher millage limit than currently is levied on city residents and businesses, no one should be thinking about raising tax rates to achieve a renovated library. There needs to be some spirited discussion of whether the 2014 ballot proposal, so soundly rejected, was just that – a vote on an excessive spending plan. Or was the defeat of the library plan a broader objection to any possible increased taxes, which raises a host of other issues?

Nice that the city commission approved the creation of construction drawings for the library project, but that should not mean that this undertaking is all systems go.

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