Eagle editorial: Library not essential?

Nine frustrating years into the effort to build a new Central Library, the Wichita City Council effectively said last week that a public library is not an essential public service worthy of tax dollars. That’s a historic change for the city, and a big challenge for the library boosters newly expected to come up with $29 million on their own. It also might have been the council’s only choice for now, however, if the city’s debt load is as critical as city officials are saying.

Though the council voted 5-2 to solicit proposals for architectural schematics for a new Central Library at Second and McLean, it was with the clear purpose that the plans be used in the hunt for a funding source other than general obligation bonds. In the order of things that such bonds might fund, a new downtown library is losing out to water, sewer and road projects. Many citizens would see that as prudent, and it is.

But it’s puzzling that the debt question arose when it did, just in time to scuttle the well-laid plans to finance a new library. Perhaps citizens were surprised to learn, via an article in the July 7 Eagle, that general obligation bonding for the library would push the city to 92 percent of its credit limit in 2018 and 2019, according to an internal city finance report. But that surely should not have been news to City Council members whose job is to oversee City Manager Robert Layton and city operations.

The library has been on the city’s capital improvements wish list for a long time. You would have expected the specter of a bonding problem to have come up 14 months ago, as the council advanced a plan for a scaled-down, expandable design, or as candidates in the spring City Council elections were talking about shepherding the library through. The city did not wake up last week and find its property values and mill levy revenues had gone flat. And if the debt bubble started to form two city managers ago, that hardly gives a pass to long-standing council members, including Mayor Carl Brewer.

In any case, the wait just got longer on a library once expected to open in 2012.

And postponement comes with its own price tag, because the existing building needs major expenditures to avoid what library board president Steve Roberts called a “major erosion of library service levels.” For that reason, he and others see further delay as poor fiscal stewardship.

Some sort of public-private partnership is worth pursuing, and the city is due a serious debate about what, if anything, might justify a higher local sales tax, including a downtown library, a new water source, better bus service or business recruitment.

In the meantime, Godspeed to the library volunteers as they await the architectural schematics and then seek private dollars for what has always been a municipal priority. City Hall may no longer share Andrew Carnegie’s view that “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people,” but many private businesses, foundations and citizens still do.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman