By Gerry Barker
September 26, 2019
This is one of the great myths of our lives. In 2004 during Mayor Farbridge’s first term in office, council debated whether to replace the downtown Library with a new one. The Library had outgrown its capacity to serve a growing population.
It sparked the growth of satellite branches and a bookmobile.
The Library lobby continued to campaign annually asking council to approve building a new facility to meet the needs of the present and future. The first proposal was to build a 93,000 square foot main branch Library downtown on the Baker Street Parking lot.
At the time, it was obvious that council was engaged in building a new city hall and renovating the old hall into a provincial offences court. This major project turned out to be a six-year financial disaster completes with a major wrongful dismissal lawsuit by the general contractor and a $65 million dollar bill.
The Library project went to the bottom of the capital-spending budget.
That was followed with the $66 million loss of shareholder’s investment in the Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc district energy project. This was launched in 2011, during the same time frame of the city hall lawsuits. There were five different interests suing, including each other. Urbacon Buildings Group Inc. suing the city for $19.2 million brought the main one. The city counter-sued for $5 million.
It was a three-ring circus of flying legal briefs and claims.
It was the dark period of the city administration amid the Library project, which bubbled beneath council’s primary interests.
The new Mayor, Cam Guthrie, announced that a private public partnership was being assembled to renovate the Baker Street site that staff primarily would cost the city $300 million. The plan called for a combination of commercial and residential complex. Included in the Mayor’s statement was that the proposed 88,000 square foot downtown Library would be the anchor on the site.
The timing was perfect as the Mayor decided to run for re-election and spoke highly of the Library project. He was re-elected.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the Baker Street proposal was being scaled back due to costs and would not include the Library.
Council shows restraint in capping 2019 capital budget
This past January 17, city council approved a 2019 capital spending budget of $87,370,100. Almost half of that budget was slated for wastewater and two new wells to accommodate future development.
Of the nine projects in the staff recommendation, absent was the new downtown Library. You remember, the one Mayor Guthrie announced in 2018 before the civic election.
Here we are in September, and the same members of council agree to add $44 million in debt to partially fund a new downtown Library to an estimated cost of $67 million. The reports say that the begging bowl is out to get a $36.6 million grant for the Library from the federal government depending on which party wins the October 21 election.
Is this a promise to be broken?
This form of financial brinksmanship is an enduring fixation by the majority bloc of city council that has stalled funding library for the past 13 years by diverting funds for other projects.
It remains today to be a malignant history of exceeding budgets, using reserves to balance the books, wasting public funds in sketchy decisions and planning, conducting public business in closed-sessions with no public participation. Ignoring its own protocols for open government, accountability and transparency.
This was not another Guthrie example of selling the sizzle, not the steak. He was one of four councillors who voted against the proposal. The mayor had his reasons but if he was not aware of the details of the project, or perhaps he was. There seems to be a lack of fiduciary judgment by the nine councillors who voted to spend $67 million on a project that was not part of the 2019 capital budget.
Regardless, Monday, September 16, council approved spending $67 million to build a new 88,000 square foot downtown Library. Coun. Dominique O’Rourke initially objected, stating that without all the information pertaining to the proposal, “It wasn’t going to happen.”
Later she relented and voted to spend the money.
To assist those members of council who voted for the Library, here are some of the missing details to support the project that will cost more than twice that of the new renovated police headquarters.
* Has a site for the new Library been chosen, where and the cost?
* What is the acreage of the site to accommodate adequate parking?
* What’s the estimated time of construction and the start-up date?
* When does the special Library levy to taxpayers kick in?
* In 23 years what is the total cost to property owners paying the Library levy?
* Is this levy fixed or will it increase as property taxes increase over 23 years?
* Is the financing in place and approved to justify the $67 million in capital approved?
* Has a business plan been prepared that separates the construction costs from the equipment required?
* Is the present library going to be sold with proceeds going to new Library costs?
* Has an architect been commissioned to design the new Library and monitor construction?
* Has a Request for Proposal been prepared to establish construction costs?
* What does this decision do to completing the $63 million South End Recreation complex?
* How can council approve funding the Library when it is not in the current capital spending budget?
* If this is council’s intention, where will it find the $67 million it has now approved and added to the 2019 capital spnding budget?
* * * *
The only possible explanation is the costs will be spread over five or six years during the time frame of completing the project. If this is the case, why didn’t council tell the public of this method that is logical and potentially manageable?
Quite frankly, this is another crapshoot by an administration that by now should have learned better handling public money.
If any of these questions have not been reviewed by staff and reported to council, how can a motion to spend $67 million succeed by a 9-4 majority without the answers?
I believe we need a new main branch Library to meet the needs of our growing city?
However, the people need a specific plan and the costs. The staff report says that $44 million is being added to the city debt.
The remaining details are not confirmed including a request to the federal government for a $36,6 million grant. The outcome of that grant request is unknown today because there is no federal government because Parliament has been prorogued until after the election.