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March 4, 2008

Council group unveils ‘concept’ to fund library expansion

library system: Patrons have full Internet access inside the main library branch downtown. A plan to expand the city’s library system would include major advances in web accessibility.Just four months after a thumping at the ballot box, a concept to expand the city’s library system is back on the books.Councilmen Jim King, D-10, and Hal Heiner, R-19, delivered a report Monday afternoon to the Metro Council’s Parks, Libraries, Zoos and Cultural Assets committee, outlining a possible way forward for a $100 million bolstering of the city’s libraries. King said the group remains in the preliminary phase of the process, which ultimately will include Mayor Abramson, the Library Advisory Committee, the Library Foundation and other members of the council. That process is expected to take at least two years, probably longer. And although only council members attended the meeting Monday, everyone seemed enthusiastic that what appeared to be a realistic plan may actually be afoot. “I hope that we can make sure there is some sense of urgency,” Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11, said during the meeting. No need to worry about that. A council workgroup established by King in December — it was one of his first acts after becoming council president — spent the three months discussing with various players how to execute the library’s “master plan” for expansion within an already tight Metro budget. The workgroup expects to hear from the library groups on the report by May. The council group, of which Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, was also a principal, used the master plan as a benchmark, but cut the funding projections in half to keep it scaleable, King said. That means $100 million would go for construction, both for new libraries and improvements to existing branches, and $5 million would be devoted to operating costs associated with expansion. Three series bonds totaling $80 million would go toward construction, with $20 million coming from private donations raised by the Library Foundation, which King said has had trouble raising money since the referendum was defeated in November. The first bond would be issued in the summer of 2010 at the earliest; it’s more likely that would come the following year, though: The city’s bond capacity will begin to expand around fiscal year 2014, as Metro continues to pay down its current debt. Chad Carlton, a spokesman for Mayor Abramson, said Tuesday that his office is pleased that the council is examining different approaches, but that it’s clear the city will not get all it could have if the tax bump for library expansion had passed. “What seemed to be clear from what Councilman Heiner and others said (Monday) is that the notion that was tossed out in the heat of the campaign last fall, that you could have everything and not have to pay for it, it seems that even advocates of that have come to the conclusion that that’s not possible,” Carlton said. He was referring to the fact that the concept only purports to fund half of the master plan. Achieving the $5 million mark to operate the new libraries may be tricky. The concept calls for annual funding increases to the library’s $16 million operating budget to be delivered by other city agencies — freezing the budgets of “less essential” Metro departments for certain periods and skimming from the top. Metro would reallocate that money to the library fund; in essence, it would save up during the construction phase with the goal of hitting $5 million in seven years. The report gives no mention of which departments could be included, and King acknowledged that deciding which would be difficult. The concept also follows the same seven-year construction schedule proposed with the referendum, which would’ve increased the city’s occupational tax slightly to pay for the expansion. Heiner has been at the center of the debate over how to fund library expansion since last fall, when he proposed using bonds to cover the costs rather than increasing taxes. The issue divided the council and parts of the community, as pro-tax members sided with the mayor and the Library Foundation while others aligned behind Heiner and South Louisville developer Chris Thieneman, who poured time and money into an expansive anti-tax campaign that succeeded in pitting working classers against the city’s pro-tax perceived elite and ultimately in pounding the referendum. There were high emotions as well; in a January interview with LEO, Mayor Abramson referred to Heiner as a “snake-oil salesman” who sold the city on an unrealistic library plan.Carlton said the mayor would proceed in the discussions over the coming months. Council members said Monday that there is broad support among their ranks to continue pursuing this concept.  Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com