City Council says no to bonding for new downtown library

A few people spend a quiet afternoon in the downtown Wichita Central Library on South Main.
A few people spend a quiet afternoon in the downtown Wichita Central Library on South Main. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita City Council members sent a clear message to their library board about a $29 million proposed new downtown library: Find the money for it and we’ll build it.

The council voted 5-2 Tuesday to solicit proposals for limited architectural schematics for the proposed library. With that vote, though, came a directive to the library board to find alternative funding sources for the library – a clear policy shift by the debt-riddled council away from original plans to issue general obligation bonds for the project.

Tuesday’s vote, with vice mayor Pete Meitzner and council member Jeff Blubaugh opposed, is intended to produce a set of schematic drawings for fundraising. That kind of outreach is now necessary after city officials determined last week that the new library would essentially max out the city’s general obligation bonding capacity, as first reported by the Eagle on Sunday. With water, sewer and road projects on the drawing board, the council refused Tuesday to run up its debt tab on the new library project.

Council members spoke for almost an hour, acknowledging the need and value of a new downtown library to replace the 1965 structure rife with climate-control and electrical problems.

The council’s not going to borrow money to build the new library, however. Council member Jeff Longwell said flatly that the city can’t handle the debt service for the new library right now.

“It would be criminal for us to raise our bond indebtedness to the level this library would force us to do over about seven years,” Longwell said.

Several other council members said their district advisory boards were opposed to bonding for a new library.

Some cited library attendance as evidence, with almost 300,000 people annually visiting the city’s Westlink branch library – a number basically equal to the shrinking attendance at the downtown library. The downtown numbers raise the possibility, council members said, of downsizing the central library to a branch.

Some of the alternative funding ideas include a two-year quarter-cent sales tax, donations and public-private partnerships.

Although several council members support turning the fate of the new library over to the voters, they’re not going to approve a single-issue referendum on the library. The new library would have to be packaged with other community projects, such as a pipeline to a new water source, to draw council approval for a vote.

Steve Roberts, the library board’s president pro tem, said after the vote he was pleased by the council’s decision to move the library project forward.

“I really couldn’t take a guess at that,” Roberts said about the library’s fundraising prospects. But he was optimistic that voters might approve a sales tax, citing recent school bond issues.

Roberts was noncommittal about potential funding sources, saying, “I hate to tell the council how to fund what the council has to fund.”

Mayor Carl Brewer made an impassioned plea to a clearly split council to advance the library project, calling it essential to the education necessary for economic development.

“We can't say now is not the time. Twenty-five years from now will be too late. Fifteen years, 10 years will be too late,” the mayor said.

But Meitzner flatly refused to support the limited architectural services, which will cost the city between $200,000 and $500,000. The vice mayor objected to spending any more city money on a project so clearly in doubt.

“We don’t even know how we’re going to fund this project,” Meitzner said.

Where the fundraising responsibility falls for the new library isn’t clear. Some council members implied a team effort with the library board, but no direct commitments were made.

Roberts said the board would be interested in a sales tax referendum.

And he expressed optimism that the council would be willing to revisit the bonding ban in a year, once those architectural schematics are done.

“The economy might improve,” Roberts said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle