Boise & Garden City

Bieter delays new library, citing high cost, county clerk’s rejection of ballot measure

Boise Mayor David Bieter said Friday that he has put city planning for the proposed new main library on hold and will no longer pursue a special election on it this November.

Bieter cited two reasons for pausing the library: Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane delivered a letter Friday to the city saying that he would not put a special election that Bieter and the City Council sought on the November ballot, and new cost estimates have come in above the $85 million the city planned to spend.

Mike Journee, Bieter’s spokesman, told the Statesman that the new cost estimates came in at $104 million. In Boise’s “hot market” for real estate and construction, Journee said, it’s possible that cost would have risen even more during construction.

Bieter also canceled the public hearing on the library that was originally planned for Tuesday night, as well as a council briefing on the project earlier that day.

But Bieter said he still plans to pursue the library.

“I believe a new Main Library is vital to the future of our city, and I will remain dedicated to making sure we have one,” Bieter said in a news release.

New library, old Capitol Boulevard site

The library would replace the existing, smaller one on Capitol Boulevard at River Street. To make room for it, The Cabin, a historic log cabin just south of the existing library, would be moved across Capitol to Julia Davis Park — a plan that, along with the new library’s price tag, prompted opponents to organize a petition drive to let voters decide whether they should have the final say on the library’s fate.

That drive succeeded, and the opponents’ separate ballot measure remains on the November ballot.

Journee told the Statesman that the $11 million contract with Moshe Safdie, the world-renowned architect who designed the Salt Lake City library, is also on pause. He said the city had already paid $2.97 million of that contract.

The contract was in phases, Journee said, and the project was near the end of the design phase. He said money would continue to be paid out when more work is done.

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 more than Bieter and the City Council said they were willing to approve.

Since then, the mayor’s office has said the city staff would use “value engineering” to bring the cost down to $85 million by using lower-cost materials and making less expensive choices on the specifics of the design. The city also expected to delay construction of the event center planned as part of the project.

But those savings were overtaken by the rising construction costs. Journee said the similarity of the old cost estimate and the new was coincidental.

One option: Raise more money from philanthropy?

Bieter will recommend the city look at other options for the project’s cost, according to the release. That could include exploring more philanthropic involvement, adjusting the design or “assessing whether an easing of market forces could help the project’s financial position.”

The cancellation of the November election does not affect the separate measure from a petition drive mounted by a community group, Boise Working Together. That measure is a proposed city ordinance that, if passed, would require a citywide election on any library that would cost more than $25 million in city funds.

Dave Kangas, a spokesman for Boise Working Together, said he considered the election cancellation to be the right call on tough decisions by both Bieter and McGrane. Having just one library measure on the ballot instead of two will avoid confusing voters, he said.

“I’m excited to hear it, because now it’s going to be a clear choice for voters in November,” Kangas said. “The voters want and deserve to have a clear choice.”

Ada county clerk says no to advisory election

McGrane’s decision affects only a ballot measure proposed as part of an ordinance the City Council passed last month to try to fix what members saw as the problems with the Boise Working Together measure.

That ordinance, proposed by City Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg, requires a public hearing by the council for any capital projects that cost $25 million or more in general fund money, to be followed by a council decision to put or not to put the project before voters in a nonbinding, advisory election.

In his letter to the mayor, which was shared with the City Council and City Attorney Jayme Sullivan, McGrane said he consulted with Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, who in turn consulted with Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, on whether the city could put the special election question on the ballot.

The letters from Denney and Kane “make it clear that the chief election official of the State shares my opinion that the City is not legally authorized to seek elections on Special City Questions of this nature,” McGrane wrote. “The Secretary of State has further recommended that I deny your request if it is presented to me.”

Included in the note from Kane is an explanation of Dillon’s Rule, which says that cities can use power only that is “expressly or impliedly granted by the Constitution or Statute,” and neither exists for special election questions from the city.

Bieter challenger says ‘public concerns not heeded’

Clegg said Friday that the city put in a “good faith effort” in proposing the election but that Bieter “made the right call” in pausing the project and not pursuing the election.

The public can rest assured we will do something publicly if the issue comes up again,” she said.

Lauren McLean, the president of Boise City Council who is challenging Bieter’s re-election bid in November, told the Statesman that based on previous conversations with the public, the library project should have been paused long ago.

“Downtown libraries are important, and it should not have been so controversial,” McLean said. “The public concerns were not heard and heeded.”

In response, Bieter’s campaign accused McLean of trying “to skirt responsibility for decisions she was a part of.” McLean was on the team that selected Safdie for the project and “never called for a pause or asked what a pause would entail,” Robert West, Bieter’s campaign manager, said in a news release.

Stadium ordinance still on Boise ballot

The plan until now had been to pay the $85 million with $52 million in city funds, $18 million in philanthropic donations and $15 million in property taxes from an urban-renewal district to pay for a new parking structure, most likely across River Street. Private fundraising has been underway for most of the past year. City officials have not disclosed how much has been raised so far.

A second Boise Working Together ordinance also remains on the November ballot, also a result of a petition drive earlier this year. That ordinance would require a citywide election on any stadium expected to cost more than $5 million in city funds.

That proposed ordinance is a reaction to the expected role that locally generated taxes would play in financing Atlanta developer Greenstone Properties’ proposed $50 million baseball and soccer stadium next to Whitewater Park Boulevard between Main and Idaho streets in Boise’s West End.

State law allows voters to enact local ordinances simply by passing them at the ballot box.

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.