Editorial: Choose Maintenance, Not Expansion, for Bloomington Public Library

In June 2017, a majority of Bloomington aldermen endorsed a plan to keep the Bloomington Public Library where it is and signaled the library board to continue planning an expansion or new facility there. We support the City Council in this decision, which was reached after much deliberation and after spending more than $500,000 in City and Library funds for land purchases at that site, building demolition, site preparation and engineering/architectural consulting fees.

Two years ago, Mayor Tari Renner also strongly backed the plan to expand the library at its current site across from City Hall. He said, “It will not only be an anchor for our downtown, but a destination… it will link the bike trail to the downtown and City Hall and to the library.” (Pantagraph article April 5, 2015)

Now, Mayor Renner wants the City Council to consider a different scenario: a combined new library and Connect Transit hub to replace the aging city parking garage at Market and Monroe Streets. This site is also endorsed in the January 2018 final report to the City Council of the Downtown Task Force, an advisory panel formed in May 2017 at Mayor Renner’s urging to prioritize downtown ideas on how to revitalize downtown Bloomington. 

The Task Force report proposes that a library/transit hub at the Market garage site would serve as a catalyst project to revitalize the city’s central business district. A key unknown element of this site proposal is the project cost, which the Task Force did not address and which has not been considered by the City. Farnsworth Group, the consultant hired by the library to consider expansion options, estimated that a new library building at a new site would cost $31 million, but this was not tied to the Market garage site. 

The eight-member Task Force,—all selected by the Mayor and approved by the Council—included three downtown property owners who have received development incentives from the City and Alderman Jamey Mathey, who owns a downtown business.  Task Force member Alderman Kim Bray, who cast the sole “nay” vote on the report, said that many details are missing and that there are unique engineering needs of a joint library/transit/parking complex. Task Force Chairman Amelia Buragas said the site recommendation aligns two longstanding projects on the community’s to-do list with the City’s 2015 comprehensive development plan.

The City Council should reject the recommendation for a library/transit hub at the Market Street site for the following reasons:

1) Majorities of the Council and the Library board have already endorsed keeping the library at its current site.

2) More than $500,000 has been spent examining the existing library site. 

3) There are too many unknowns about the Market Street site, which has not been thoroughly examined. 

4) The City faces a deadline for its 2018 budget (which runs from April 1, 2018 to March 30, 2019) and needs to focus on how to eliminate a projected budget shortfall of $3 million. This follows a shortfall of $7.4 million in 2017 that the City plugged by increasing the annual budget by $20 million through revenue increases and reducing expenses. Pressure on the budget will continue in future years. 

5) The City should give priority to fixing and improving its infrastructure, such as sewers and roads, over the construction of speculative catalyst projects. According to an August 23, 2017 Pantagraph article, Jim Karch, Director of Public Works for the City of Bloomington, has asked for $35 million over the next five years for sewers, but only about $6.5 million is available. He is also seeking $43 million for five year’s worth of street work. He noted much of the sewer rehabilitation work must be done before the street resurfacing. The current city budget for street work is woefully underfunded at approximately $3.8 million. 

The prudent course of action for the City Council this year would be to choose the least costly plan for the maintaining the library at this time; $2 million is the estimated cost for minimum maintenance of the existing building over the next five years. Those expenses include replacing the roof, according to Library Director Jeanne Hamilton. 

The citizens of the Twin Cities would be better served if their elected officials would represent the interests of the community as a whole and increase collaboration in all areas of civic life. Instead, each city is planning its own library through borrowing and devising plans to further tax the citizens to pay for these projects.