On Tuesday, Aug. 20, Boise voters will finally get an answer: Will there be one election this November on the proposed $85 million new main library, or two?
Thanks to an initiative from a community group Boise Working Together, the library will be on the ballot at least once. But a new ordinance approved by the council in July could put it on there twice.
Why? How did we get here? What would these elections mean?
Initial plans for a library
Boise has been trying to either upgrade or replace its main library for decades now. The main library is a warehouse from the 1940s that was converted in 1973, and Kevin Booe, the library director, told the Statesman in 2017 that it is a less-than-ideal space. Officials love the location at Capitol Boulevard and River Street, however, and want to keep it Downtown near the Boise River.
Remodeling likely would have been cheaper, but it also likely wouldn’t have presented the long-term solution the city was looking for. A rebuild would have cost between $40 and $50 million, according to previous Idaho Statesman reporting. A 2008 estimate found that replacing it could run as high as $119 million, a price tag the Boise City Council did not like.
The city ultimately decided to replace the library. Officials interviewed five design teams in early 2018 before selecting the world-renowned Moshe Safdie to design the new library. Safdie designed the library in Salt Lake City. Safdie’s team is working with Boise-based CSHQA to design the library, which is planned to include more storage space for books, more parking and outdoor space.
The price of a new library
An August 2018 analysis of the library’s cost by a consultant indicated that if everything from the conceptual design was included, the library would cost $103 million, including $11.8 million for a parking garage. That was higher than the $85 million city officials, including the mayor and the city council, wanted to pay.
The city staff has been working to bring down the cost to $85 million by using what Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor David Bieter, called “value engineering:” using lower-cost materials and making more budget-savvy choices on the specifics of the design to bring the cost down. Officials also expect to delay a planned events center portion of the building, whose cost could eventually push the total above $85 million.
Officials expect the city to pay $52 million of the $85 million, with $18 million to $20 million paid from philanthropic donations and $15 million in urban renewal money for the project.
Boise’s contribution to the library was once planned to be given through $22 million in city cash reserves and $30 million in lease financing, which would have added about $15 million in interest to the $85 million total. Bieter told the Statesman in June that the city was considering paying the full $52 million from its cash reserves. It’s also possible the city’s portion could be reduced if donations exceed $18 million. Private fundraising has been underway for about year, with no disclosure yet of the amount raised.
The city money and donations will go to the library itself, while the urban renewal money will go toward the parking structure. The structure could become part of a new building replacing an old industrial building across River Street that until this year served as home to the Foothills School of Arts and Sciences.
Urban renewal money comes from property taxes in urban renewal districts, which are created by cities to help restore blighted areas. During the years an area is a designated urban-renewal district, existing taxing districts, such as schools, cities and counties, continue to collect whatever taxes they collected within the district’s territory when the district was formed, but no more. Any new property-tax revenue — known as the “tax increment” — resulting from new development or higher property values goes to the district to be spent on public improvements to foster development.
Activating people on both sides
Not everyone loves the multimillion dollar library project, including state policymakers and local residents. In March, state legislators introduced House Bill 217, which would regulate how cities could use urban renewal money. The bills were seen by Boise city officials as an attack on the library and on a planned $50 million baseball and soccer stadium, both of which would be funded at least partially by urban renewal money.
The version of the bill that was signed into law by Gov. Brad Little calls for an election if the cost of a municipal building or a major remodel exceeds $1 million and is funded by at least 51 percent nonfederal public money that includes any amount of urban-renewal money. But it explicitly excludes parking structures like the one planned for the library from the election requirement.
About the same time, Boise Working Together circulated petitions and gathered enough signatures to put the library and stadium project in front of voters come November. The group formed partly in response to Boise’s plan to move The Cabin, a 1940 log cabin just south of the library, to make space for the new building.
For the library, Boise Working Together’s ordinance calls for a vote on any library project costing more than $25 million. It will be on the November ballot, and if voters approve it, it will become law.
The library project activated several other groups, too. One group, called Protect Our Libraries, was created by anonymous donors. The group handed out fliers to would-be signers of Boise Working Together’s petitions encouraging them to “know before you sign.” It was later revealed that Mayor David Bieter’s campaign was a founding member of the Protect Our Libraries campaign and donated $1,000 to that group.
Another group, the fundraising arm of the library system called the Boise Library Foundation, put up signs around the city similar in size to ones put out by Boise Working Together. Bev Harad, chair of the foundation, told the Statesman at the time that the signs were not political, as the foundation’s only goal is to promote a new library. She said the current main library is “bursting at the seams.”
How it ended up on the ballot once
After Boise Working Together’s signatures were verified, the City Council had the option to adopt the ordinances and negate the need for the November vote.
Several members of the council, including Elaine Clegg and Scot Ludwig, said they worried about the constitutionality of the ordinances based on their wording. But Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said the council would have to prove the city had the authority to change the proposed ordinances on the ballot.
The council ultimately opted not to adopt the ordinances, instead letting them go to the ballot. Clegg introduced two competing ordinances to let the city put “special city questions” before voters, and to require a public hearing on capital projects that cost $25 million or more from the general fund, to be followed by a council decision to put or not to put the project before voters in a nonbinding, advisory election. The measures were combined into a single ordinance that the council passed July 16.
What happens next
Tuesday’s hearing is the one required for projects costing at least $25 million. Anyone can testify, and those who do will each be given three minutes to speak.
People who cannot attend can send written testimony by emailing it to firstname.lastname@example.org by the end of business Monday, Aug. 19.
The council will then decide whether to send the library to the ballot once again. If both issues appear on the ballot, there are four potential options:
1. Both measures pass. Clegg told the Statesman in July that that would resolve the issue because, by passing the city’s ordinance at the same time they pass Boise Working Together’s, voters would already have had their election on the library that Boise Working Together’s ordinance calls for.
Boise Working Together spokespeople weren’t sure about that. Dave Kangas, a spokesman for the group, told the Idaho Statesman that he wasn’t sure the advisory vote would satisfy the initiative.
2. Clegg’s measure passes and Boise Working Together’s fails. That would likely settle the issue and propel the library forward.
3. Voters reject both measures. This could put the library in jeopardy. But Adam Park, director of community engagement for the city, said in July that it “may be premature” to say what would happen with the library, because the city has not yet determined the language to be put before voters in November.
4. Clegg’s measure fails and Boise Working Together’s passes. The result could depend on whether the Clegg ordinance’s advisory election was considered to be what the Boise Working Together initiative called for, as she believes it would be, and what the language of the advisory vote was. It may not kill the library if that happens, but it could mean big changes.
Those interested in participating in the hearing can attend both the council’s work session, which will be at 3 p.m. on Aug. 20 at City Hall, and the regular meeting, which will be at 6 p.m. that evening. The work session will cover the library’s schematic design, environmental impact, parking, public input and project cost.