By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
In November 2000, the people of Minneapolis voted by a 2-to-1 margin to approve $140 million for the construction of a new downtown library and the renovation of community libraries around the city. Today, $9 mil-
lion and a very large hole in the ground later, city leaders find themselves debating whether to postpone or scale back their downtown project, and close or reduce library service in the neighborhoods.
While there is certainly a degree of incompetence involved, the Minneapolis library fiasco is more a testament to the souring economy and a regime change in state and local governments. Three years ago, when the city's eight-member library board was weighing the size and scope of their November ballot referendum, board members wanted to set a price tag in the $150-$160 million range, in part to pay off the debt service on the new construction. But according to Diane Hofstede, the library board member with the most seniority, officials in then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton's administration decreed that anything above $140 million would put too great a burden on the city's debt level.
Associate library director Jan Feye-Stukas and library board members also contend that the city agreed to raise the library's operating budget by four percent annually to cover any additional staffing and maintenance costs in the system. Because the design of the new downtown library stood to make it more efficient than the old facility, four percent seemed like enough. And because the city's tax base was growing by the billions each year at the time, the city likewise felt confident about its commitment.
¬ But about two years ago, the economic recession began gnawing away at the city's rosy budget projections. That loss in revenue was exacerbated by the state Legislature's decision to cut property taxes on businesses, rental property, and high-income homes. Meanwhile, improvements to some of the city's neighborhood libraries dramatically increased traffic at those branches. "Newly remodeled facilities have seen a huge jump in circulation and attendance, sometimes by as much as 300 percent," Hofstede says. "In places where we have added computers and programs, they have become real community centers."
And library officials now say they can't meet that increased demand with just a four percent annual bump in their operations budget. To make matters worse, the policies of Mayor R.T. Rybak and Governor Tim Pawlenty are imposing additional restraints.
The city's enormous budget deficit had become apparent when Rybak took office in January of last year. In response, he convinced the City Council to cap annual property tax increases at eight percent over the next five years, and stipulated that all city departments replace yearly budget estimates with a five-year financial projection. Although the library board operates independent of the city, it is acceding to Rybak's request for a five-year projection. But already, its preliminary calculations are that it will need a five percent increase in annual operating funds from the city just to maintain the current level of services, or it will face a $25 million shortfall through 2010.
Enter Pawlenty, whose proposed state cuts in local government aid (LGA) would deprive Minneapolis of an estimated $80 million in revenue over the next two years. The cuts would dramatically affect the library system, which has used LGA for more than 40 percent of its annual operating budget. State law currently prevents Minneapolis from raising local taxes beyond Rybak's eight percent ceiling, and it is possible that the Pawlenty administration will cap city revenue increases at an even lower level, essentially compelling drastic cuts in local government services. Including libraries.
By approving a $140 million referendum with 67 percent of the vote and patronizing branch libraries in record numbers, the citizens of Minneapolis have made it plain that they support a robust library system. But there aren't enough funds in the city coffers to operate it, and even if the citizens wished to raise taxes to meet the library's needs, they are prevented by state law from doing so--indeed, legislation forthcoming from the capitol is almost certain to further reduce library revenues and hamstring the system.
Compounding the frustration, the library monies available under the referendum can only be used for physical construction and improvements, not operations. And at this stage in the process, they have been spent on things that have reduced public access to library resources over the short term. In December, the city issued $9.5 million in bonding for the library project, the maximum allowed for 2002 under the terms of the referendum. Approximately $1.8 million of that amount is being used to pay for demolishing the old library. Another $2.8 million provided initial payments on the $10.1 million tab to design the new facility. Three million dollars more has gone to setting up and relocating the library in a temporary facility on Marquette Avenue and, because the temporary location is less than a third the size of the old library, storing most of its collection.
Yet it is only now, facing imminent cuts in LGA money, that the city is pausing to reconsider where it stands. No one particularly regrets that the old library is gone; by all accounts, the place would have required a massive infusion of money just to keep its doors open. (Among other things, the fire marshal had already threatened to shut it down.)