Closing the book on prospects for a Marion library vote

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Marion is moving ahead with plans to build a new public library uptown. It is not moving ahead with a public vote to see if citizens want it.

The vote was promised, but plans changed. Now we’ve got a good project that leaves a bad taste.

Back in August 2015, the library board of trustees was about to face a meeting room filled with residents wondering about an evolving plan to tear down the current 1996 library and replace it with a mixed-use development including a new, larger library.

Some were unhappy. Many were calling for a public vote, like the one that approved construction of the 1996 library. Several city candidates facing a November vote seconded that notion.

In another room, the trustees mulled their next move.

“Don’t fear a vote,” City Manager Lon Pluckhahn told the board, explaining how the project could be structured to require a vote on issuing bonded debt. Or perhaps the city could find some other mechanism for putting the library on the ballot, he said.

So the board voted unanimously to hold a public vote.

“I would hope that if we say that tonight, they know we are listening,” current Library Board President Susan Kling said at the time.

But time passed, the vote never materialized and the library plan evolved. Now, a new 40,000-sq. foot library would be a $12.1 million portion of a $24 million mixed-use retail and residential development uptown. But instead of tearing down the current library, the developer, Ryan Companies, would tear down the Marion Square strip mall on Seventh Avenue.

Also disappearing are plans for a public vote.

That’s because, as Pluckhahn explained this past week to the City Council, the project will be led by the library’s charitable foundation, not the city. The foundation will apply for a $10 million bond to buy the library’s portion of the development from Ryan, which would then be leased by the city using $5 million in local-option sales tax dollars earmarked for the library. The city would own the library after a decade. The current library would be sold. The foundation also is expected to raise $2 million for the project from community donors.

“Instead of this being a city project, it is a library foundation project,” Pluckhahn said.

There’s no city borrowing involved, so there’s no need for a vote on issuing bonds. Pluckhahn said manipulating the plan to include bonding and a vote would be “deceptive” because the debt isn’t needed. And there’s no other mechanism for a referendum, the city manager contends.

“That simply isn’t possible,” Pluckhahn said.

At Tuesday’s City Council work session, council members who spoke expressed support for the project, tempered with concern for Marion Square businesses that will be displaced. The city is promising assistance to those businesses.

Council member Mary Lou Pazour, who had been a skeptic of the need for a new library, conceded the current library can’t be easily adapted for a growing town. For one thing, radiant heating installed in the floor makes it difficult to reconfigure the library’s layout.

“I just hope you guys appreciate all the crow I have to eat,” Pazour said.

“I do appreciate it very much,” Library Director Elsworth Carman said.

The council voted Thursday night to seek legal and financial advice on structuring the project’s financing. It still must sign off on the use of local-option sales tax bucks.

There’s a lot to like. The funding structure is ingenious. It doesn’t raise taxes or increase debt. It creates a development that will generate property tax dollars, along with the prospect of a taxpaying entity moving into the current library. It seems to solve the question of who will own the library. And, of course, it provides a new, larger, better-designed library to a community that has grown out of its current facility more rapidly than expected.

“Every library director wants to be able to build a new building without having a negative impact on community financing. That’s always the goal,” Carman, who became director in March 2016, told me this past week. “This feels like the best way to do that.”

But promising a vote, and then not delivering feels wrong. I’d argue it’s more deceptive than adjusting the funding structure to trigger a bond vote. It’s one more dent in the thoroughly dented notion of public trust.

And it’s an unforced error. Backers could have told residents in 2015 that, because financing was still not nailed down, a public vote might not be possible or necessary. It might have been an unpopular explanation. They might have caught hell. But it would have been accurate.

Instead, they promised a vote. I thought it was the right call. After the Library Board worked for two years to weigh its options, gather input and develop a unique project, I figured they’d have a winning sales pitch.

Also, it’s a consequential public project, with rewards, risks and consequences, especially for those Marion Square businesses. It’s the sort of project the public might like a chance to weigh in on.

Sure, voters shot down a library levy increase in 2013, but they also renewed a sales tax with the library as one of its main funding destinations. It’s a community priority.

Pluckhahn insists that means Marion residents want a better library but don’t want higher taxes to pay for it. This plan, with no tax increase, gives Marion what it wants, he said. He may be right. The positive end may justify the means.

But that bad taste will linger on.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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