Residents told Baraboo Common Council members that a project to expand the public library needs to be prioritized for 2021, but officials were unconvinced, instead approving a recommendation from City Administrator Ed Geick to have a financial advisory firm evaluate the city’s list of capital projects.
Geick told council members Tuesday that an option to fund the construction of a combined fire and EMS station through United States Department of Agriculture loans rather than traditional bonding would allow more capital for the city to fund other projects.
Geick said once Minnesota-based Ehlers Companies, a financial advisory firm with a branch in Waukesha, evaluates the outlined projects, the city may likely find that a new emergency personnel building could be completed by 2021. Work on the library could begin shortly after the fire/EMS building is completed.
“More than likely we’ll see the library moved up,” Geick said.
Council member Tom Kolb said he was glad to hear Geick say the project could be started earlier than 2028, noting the public has been effective in its argument supporting the project.
“I think this is democracy at work. This is the way it’s supposed to work,” Kolb said. “And I think they’ve presented a compelling argument to move the library project up and I certainly support that.”
Last work done in 1982
Library Director Jessica Bergin said the building at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Birch Street was built in 1903. Its last renovation was in 1982, she added. The project calls for $10.4 million to increase the library footprint by roughly 20,000 square feet. Renovations would be done on nearly 14,000 square feet of the existing building.
The addition also would provide more parking space and a seamless connection for vehicles between the library, First United Methodist Church and the Al. Ringling mansion parking lots to ensure traffic flows smoothly.
Library expansion supporters have decried a move by the city to put off renovations until 2028 when initial plans were to begin the project in 2021. Some called on the need for more space, whether for adult or teen patrons, based on figures of about 3,000 visitors each week. Others pointed to the expense of waiting until 2028, with funding for continued maintenance on the aging building in addition to anticipated higher construction costs.
Resident Keri Olson said the library — which has the least square footage per capita of any in Sauk County — has waited long enough.
“The building simply isn’t large enough to appropriately accommodate such a large number of patrons or library services,” Olson said. “An expanded building is imperative.”
Tony Kujawa, a library board trustee, said funding shows library organizers have been effective in their campaign. The library has raised $1.5 million in contributed funds during the planning process and allocated $175,000 for architectural fees, $300,000 toward the purchase of property east of the library and $45,000 to buy property owned by the local Methodist church.
“We are ready to move forward on the project,” Kujawa said.
Mayor Mike Palm said for nearly a decade, city audits have been strong and leaders have been commended by auditors for fiscal restraint and that needs to be considered before taking on project costs.
“That’s paramount,” Palm said. “I think that from the discussions I’ve had, it sounds like there’s some ability here to take both projects on, but I’m not ready to say that without hearing Ehlers’ comments.”
Dissent over priorities
Council member Scott Sloan disagreed with prioritizing an expanded library over road construction. He said every year he has served on council, he has heard about infrastructure improvements.
“Everybody uses roads; everybody uses streets,” Sloan said. “Without them, there is no economic development; there’s no people moving to town. I don’t know how you borrow $20 million and let these roads continue to crumble. It’s No. 1 across everyone’s board. That has to be prioritized.”
Fellow council member Joe Petty said once a cost analysis is created, the city will be able to more reasonably understand how to spend its capital.
“There are a lot of things we’d like to accomplish, but there’s so much money to do it,” Petty said, laughing and saying his 48 years as a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association official make him impervious to criticism as he noted a member of the public showing him a thumbs down sign. “That’s the reality of the world, like it or not.”
Petty told the roughly 50 people in attendance that they have been heard by officials and agreed with Kolb’s assessment that the argument has been compelling.
Doug Mering, a resident and vice president of the school board, said the city’s 2005 comprehensive plan stated library expansion was “long overdue” and the building at that time was deemed space deficient by 4,000 square feet based on on national standards.
“I believe the library expansion supports many of the things we want to accomplish,” Mering said, referencing business and community goals. “I want to note two of those: community partnerships and most importantly, equity.”
Olson said capital projects should be based on need, public input and readiness, “plain and simple.”
“I understand that there will always be worthy projects seeking your attention, but the library has waited for years, consistently falling behind other priorities,” Olson said. “Now should be the library’s time.”