BOISE — After more than a year of planning, Boise is shaking up its plan for how to pay for the new main library.
Boise City Council gave its informal approval Tuesday to use cash reserves to pay for the vast majority of the controversial $85 million library replacement, instead of taking out bonds through long-term lease financing with the urban renewal agency.
The city plans to accomplish this through a combination of drawing down savings, changing up its strategy on a downtown fire station project, and cobbling together unallocated funds to get the project done possibly in time for a 2023 opening.
The cost for the project, and its reliance on bonds that come with interest, has become a bone of contention with some members in the community in recent months. Although the project was budgeted for $85 million, the design completed by architect Moshe Safdie came in at a roughly $104 million price tag.
City engineers are working on their strategy to change the project to fit the budget, but options won’t be available for the public until the end of the summer when schematic design is complete. In the meantime, a ballot initiative to put the library project to a vote in November qualified. As of press time, city council was still deciding how it would address the question of a vote on the project.
Although the city has nearly the entire cost of the project allocated in its budget and has raised over half of the $18 million it would need from private donations, it has only spent $2.97 million on the project to date.
The $30 million would otherwise be paid for with long-term lease financing will now come from a variety of sources, including $7.5 million from the city’s cash flow reserves, money saved from the cost of not paying annual lease payments and another $6 million in allocated resources left over at the end of the budget cycle.
The rest would come from savings from not replacing city vehicles as often, and the possible deferment of buying land and building a standalone Hillcrest Library on the Boise Bench, and renovating, rather than rebuilding, Fire Station Five in downtown Boise.
CONCERNS OVER HILLCREST
City Council members expressed support for the new strategy to pay for the library without the lease financing, although the possibility of delaying the purchase of land for a standalone Hillcrest Library branch in fiscal year 2023 was a sticking point for Council President Lauren McLean. She requested staff research other options to use the $1.5 million set to purchase land for the branch, which is currently leasing out space in the Hillcrest Shopping Center on Overland Road.
“It’s a couple years out, and we might recover and be able to (purchase the land), but I’d rather know the alternatives rather than walking away from a neighborhood library,” McLean said.
City Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg said she is happy with the changed strategy for the financing, but she hopes the city will be able to share its plans for how the library project will fit the budget soon so the public can weigh in.
“I know we’re being pushed hard to make a decision quickly, but I think it would be really hard for me to understand without the public reacting to some of the options that have been talked about that would change their perception of the project as to what is the best way to proceed,” she said.
Officials estimate with escalating construction costs, every month the project is delayed it adds another $240,000 to the price tag.
Mayor Dave Bieter’s Chief of Staff Jade Riley told council the city recommended to pay with cash reserves after considering growing opposition to this form of financing, which could result in a lawsuit against the city and tie up the project even further.
Idaho’s constitution does not allow cities to take on debt without a direct vote of the people. However, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that a city can pay back back bonds taken out through another government organization, such as an urban renewal organization or an auditorium district, without a vote. Riley said although there is precedent protecting the process, the process has become increasingly controversial and could result in someone wanting the issue to be reheard by the court.
“We still feel like there are legally sound lease financing options,” Riley said, “but anybody can take anybody to court and tie up a project. So it made sense if we could do it from an alternative funding strategy, we should explore that.”
This decision to switch up its funding strategy comes on the heels of changes to state law earlier this year making it more difficult for library projects using urban renewal to go through without a public vote. Some critics of the city’s plan to use cash say this is an effort to skirt state law and avoid accountability, but city spokesman Mike Journee previously said by using cash the city is honoring the legislature’s intent by limiting its use of urban renewal.