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Boise looks at library options after initiative scuttled $100MM+ building

- Idaho Press

There are no plans to immediately resume work on a new main library in Boise, but the department is embarking on a new systemwide strategic plan and searching for a new director to lead the way.

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At Tuesday’s city council meeting, city leaders met with the Boise Public Library board of trustees to talk about the future of the library system after former Mayor Dave Bieter’s proposal for an $85 million library floundered at the end of last year. No concrete steps forward were discussed; the council and the trustees came to the conclusion that the city needs to update its 20-year-old master plan and study the library needs of the entire city before proceeding with any plans for a new main library.

“While personally I would love to go forward with finishing out what we started years ago, in fact, I think it is time to regroup and step back a bit and look at the big picture again and see if that is still what we need as a community long term to serve everyone’s needs,” City Council President Elaine Clegg said.

The proposal for a new main library championed by Bieter became a political flashpoint in mid-2018 and throughout 2019 because of plans to relocate the historic 1940s era log cabin near the current library and the massive price tag. In November, voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative that would require the city to get voter approval before building a library costing more than $25 million, in order to give the public more input on the project.

The replacement of the main library was supposed to be the culmination of a two-decade-long process to build out the system, which included the construction of four branch libraries in different corners of the city. The project was put on pause in the fall of 2019, when city engineers were unable to get the project to fit the $85 million budget because of rising construction costs, among other factors.

‘Interruptions’

Margo Healy, the chairwoman for the board of trustees, called the political upheaval and then retirement of former Boise Library Director Kevin Boe at the end of 2019 a series of “interruptions,” but the board is ready to head in a new direction. They expect to have a new director hired by the end of the year.

The language of the ordinance requiring a vote on the main library was the elephant in the room when discussing the future of a new main library. The way the city of Boise interprets the law, the way it is written blocks any and all progress on the library because any spending on a new main library, including staff time, cannot happen until voters approve the project. But, the city argues it cannot put a project to the voters unless it spends staff time planning it.

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Boise Working Together, the group that wrote the ordinance, does not agree with this interpretation. The group’s attorney, Brain Ertz, said in December that the language prevents the city from spending its resources on a library project, but not taking staff time to develop a proposal to put on the ballot.

Clegg briefly addressed the ordinance, but did not offer any solutions for how the issues around it can be resolved. It is unknown what the city intends to do about the current impasse related to the ordinance and the differing interpretations.

“I don’t think what (Boise Working Together) intended to tell us was we can’t plan for a new library,” Clegg said. “I think what they meant to tell us is if we wanted to spend a lot of money on a new library they wanted a say in that. I think there are a number of different avenues to get there, but if we can’t plan for a new main library we’re in a world of hurt so we need to figure that out.”

‘Good to fair’

Shawn Wilson, an engineer with the city, said the city has conducted a major assessment of the main library building to see how long it could continue in its current use. The assessment found the building was in “good to fair” shape, but it needed major repairs like a new roof, ADA compliant bathrooms on the second floor and a major replacement to the building’s 1940s era plumbing system.

City officials will be reevaluating what to replace and how much they want to invest in the coming months before planning for a new main library down the road. City Council Member Patrick Bageant said he understood what the city was working on, but he was concerned about sinking too much money into an aging building to put off building a new one.

“So when we’re having this conversation the thoughts going through my mind are how much to spend to by the time we need to identify and create a plan to execute on the library that’s going to fit our community best,” Bageant said.

Margaret Carmel
Margaret is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.
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