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McLean: New main library should be delayed for a few years

Boise likely won’t see a new main library project proposed for a few more years.

On Thursday, Mayor Lauren McLean made a recommendation to the Boise Library Board of Trustees they take the next “two or three years” to plan for the future of the library and evaluate how services are delivered before diving into a new downtown branch.

This comes after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic where library buildings largely remained closed to the public and the City of Boise is tightening its financial belt.

[Project Tracker: Boise Library redevelopment]

A winding road

McLean addressed the trustees about her own love of the library, the importance of making sure those services are reaching everyone in the city and waiting to build a new flagship location when the timing is right.

“I find it incredibly exciting that we are in a place where we can say ‘okay for the next couple of years we’re going to focus on the people we serve, the programs we offer and make sure we get to as many people as we possibly can’ and that will set us up in the long term for a 20 year systems plan that looks at what we learned so we create a system for the future.”

The Library Board of Trustees has some of its own authority and does not need to follow McLean’s recommendation, but its budget allocation is determined by McLean and city council.

[Boise Public Library looking to the future after turbulent few years]

Under former Mayor Dave Bieter in 2019, the city proposed a roughly $85 million-plus new downtown library designed by world-famous architect Moshe Safdie. The project quickly turned into a political flashpoint in the 2019 election with residents arguing the price tag was too high, more public input was needed and it was too big of a financial lift at a time when so many Boiseans face a housing crisis.

The proposal went on pause indefinitely due to escalating costs and after a ballot initiative passed requiring the city to hold a public vote on a library project costing more than $25 million.

The Board of Trustees will begin discussing the upcoming strategic planning process for services starting next month. This will include public outreach, financial planning and other elements to put together the roadmap for the entire system.

Money is tight

After McLean’s appearance at the meeting, Boise Budget Manager Eric Bilimoria gave an overview of the city’s budget process and the various constraints on the locality. The city’s personnel costs are escalating due to health insurance and workers comp, while bills from the legislature have decreased the revenue available. To balance the fiscal year 2022 budget, the city had a 2% cut in non-salary spending, cut vacant positions and reduced annual raises for employees.

He referenced 2020 legislation that reduced Boise’s share of sales tax revenues from the state, as well as looming possible legislation to cap local government budgets as an attempt to provide property tax relief. A bill this session died in the senate by one vote last month, but rumor is a related bill has been drafted and has yet to be introduced.

Bilimoria did not directly reference the library and the cost of a new building, but the overall message of his presentation was the city has a lot of competing priorities and limited resources.

“As we look to address issues such as family homelessness, or climate change or any of those types of things, they’re competing for the same resources that pay for department operations,” he said. “There’s a lot of complexity and we’re doing our very best to allocate for the highest and best use and ensure we can provide quality services to the community.”

[CCDC gives first approval to new 12-story senior apartment project near library]

Mixed-response from trustees

Trustee Phil Magnuson questioned McLean about her approach during the meeting, citing all of the work that already went into the 2019 proposal. He said physical libraries are “a major catalyst for a lot of things” and they are important to focus on, not just reevaluating from the ground up what the library is doing for programming.

He was unsure what more evaluation and planning the library staff could do after the last year of upheaval.

“Staff has already done that and they’ve figured out what they need to do now that accounts for the pandemic,” he said. “In terms of these next two or three years, they’ve already done it. It’s unclear to me what this focus is on the next two or three years.”

Trustee Rachel Goochey said she saw both Magnuson and McLean’s points, saying it’s important to plan for a new physical building and reevaluate how the library reach people where they are.

“One thing I felt passionately about as I came onto the board is that while I love being able to come to the library, it’s one of my favorite things to do, I think it’s so cool to see the library going out to the community and especially since Boise is such an outdoor, get involved network type of community so I love the idea of taking the next two to three years to say ‘how can we spread out using the resources we have and how can we expand that in the community as we’re simultaneously taking time to look at a building project.’”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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