Library update

On the evening of December 4, 2014, interested citizens gathered in the Green Room on the first floor of the Duluth Public Library to hear a presentation about the library itself. In July, the city council had hired the prestigious Twin Cities architectural firm of Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle (MSR) to conduct a facilities study of the library and develop recommendations for its future. Today, those recommendations would be made public.
Half a dozen city and library staff members were on hand, looking helpful. Chuck Froseth, the city’s land use supervisor, handed out comment forms at the door, soliciting people’s thoughts and ideas. Poster-boards were set up on easels around the room, illustrating different aspects of the library’s different futures.
Although the meeting had been advertised to start at 6:00, it was 6:15 before Head City Planner Keith Hamre picked up the microphone and announced that the meeting would begin at 6:30, so people had a chance to fully absorb the poster-boards. I had already seen many of the images on the boards three weeks earlier, at a meeting where two MSR representatives had updated the library’s Citizens Steering Committee on their progress, so I stayed in my seat.
The Citizens Steering Committee is a group of senior city staff (including Hamre and Director of Public Administration Jim Filby Williams) and eleven community members, picked by city staff, who will eventually develop a final recommendation for the library. Bruce Stender, a principal in the Lion Hotel Group, owner of the Holiday Center downtown, is a member. Greg Fox, former vice chancellor for finance and operations at UMD, is another. Angie Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth, is a third. City Council President Emily Larson serves as the steering committee’s liaison to the council.
At 6:30, Hamre thanked everyone for coming, quipping, “One of the first things, for being in attendance tonight, what I do want to say is that [Library Manager] Carla [Powers] did tell me that anybody who has any library fines, those will be forgiven tonight. But tonight only.” The audience roared.
Hamre introduced members of the Citizens Steering Committee, who were sitting throughout the room. He explained that the steering committee brought common sense to the discussion.

City Planner Keith Hamre: When I brought the citizens committee together, they kind of looked at us and said, “Well, we’re not library experts.” And I said, “No, you’re not. But you all live in a house, and you all know that when your family makes changes or you have additional kids or you have a reduction in family size, your house may not continue to fit your needs. And so it’s time to do an analysis of your housing needs and say, Do I need to add on? Do an expansion? Add on a couple of bedrooms because we have a larger family? Do I need to reroof? Do we re-insulate, because the house is not energy efficient? Or do I have to consider that the house has maybe gotten too old, or it’s gotten outdated, and it’s not useful? You know, you may need to tear it down and rebuild. Or it might need to move.” […]
That’s kind of what I want to ask you to do tonight, too. If you were to think about your own housing situation, if you were to have a change, and maybe you have had a change recently, or you’ve moved over the past four or five years, how’d you kind of go through that process of analyzing what you were going to consider doing?

I tried Hamre’s thought experiment. One thing I realized immediately was that I would never tear down my house. Nor did I see any point in moving it. It had been sitting in the same place for 110 years. Why would I move it?
Hamre proceeded to disparage and talk down the existing library. The case against the library, if I may sum it up (having heard it a few times now), goes something like this: Although the library was built to the standards of the 1970s, it is terribly energy inefficient. Currently, it loses $75,000 per year in heating and cooling that escapes. The building is also poorly designed, with little natural light getting in and giant pillars obstructing people’s lines of sight. At thirty-five years of age, the library’s major support systems, including its HVAC system, are nearing the end of their useful lives. And, although the library is only 35 years old, it was built in a different era, when computers were not foreseen, so its interior layout is all wrong for the times. And the place is unwelcoming to people with disabilities.
“If you’re someone who’s in a wheelchair or [has] a physical disability,” said Hamre, “and you come in off of Michigan Street, and you kind of stand there and look at that stairwell and you go, ‘Where’s the elevator? How do I get to it?’ There’s no signs. It’s not obvious, so it’s not inviting. We need to have our library be an inviting place.”
I had heard the same example given three weeks earlier by Tracy Lesneski and Stephen Bellairs, the MSR consultants. Since it was such an issue, I wondered why the library didn’t simply buy some big signs, with arrows, that read, “ELEVATOR.”
MSR, Hamre said, had crafted four possible options for the library’s future. The first two involved full or partial upgrades of the existing library. The costs of renovation started at $15 million for basic upgrades. The second two options involved tearing the library down and building a new one, either the same size or smaller, maybe on the same site or maybe somewhere else. The estimate for building a new, smaller library on the same site was $27 million.
“This is quite a challenge,” Hamre acknowledged. “It’s a large price tag, and it’s not easy to be looking at a large dollar amount at this point.[…] Now, probably one of the questions you’re all asking yourselves is, ‘Can we just not do anything?’ And, quite frankly, we can’t. Because, as Carla showed [with] that one slide up there, $75,000 per year of heat and energy inefficiency. And being stewards of public money, I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to turn our back if we’re wasting money.”
I am always very interested to watch projects being sold. Already, you could see the discussion being framed in terms of one option being “only” $12 million more than another option. As responsible stewards of the public purse, we would practically have to build new.

Meanwhile, at City Hall…

Coincidentally, at the same time that the presentation was going on at the library, the Duluth city council, one block up the hill, was considering an item on their agenda that also related to the library. The original contract with MSR, approved in July, was for $52,396. Resolution 606, which the council was looking at tonight, added $10,200 to that amount. The statement of purpose at the bottom of the resolution said, “This resolution amends the city’s Agreement [with MSR] by adding three citizen steering committee meetings that were not anticipated in the original contract.” One of the three meetings was the one taking place down the hill at that very moment.
Councilor Jennifer Julsrud questioned the cost. “Ten thousand two hundred dollars is a lot of money for three meetings,” she commented.
Jim Filby Williams, the city’s uber-articulate director of public administration (and Citizens Steering Committee member), replied, “Councilor Julsrud, yes, that is a sizeable amount of money. It’s for two highly trained professional architects to prepare for, travel to, and conduct meetings from the Twin Cities, and these costs are in keeping with the hourly rates that they have communicated to us, and we are confident that, given the magnitude of the investments that we are considering in our library, that, while it’s expensive, that it’s a necessary and appropriate investment.”
Councilor Julsrud asked why city staff couldn’t take the information from the architects and conduct some of the public meetings themselves.
Chief Administrative Officer Dave Montgomery answered, in his own articulate way. ”They’re already doing the rest of it. To have other people now stepping in…I imagine we could perhaps try to figure out how to do it, and make sure it went smoothly, but having the same folks run these extra meetings [is] a more seamless process, and ultimately, we think, more efficient. Is it too much? Is it not enough? […] You have to decide what it costs to run these processes. It is a sizeable investment we’re looking at. It’s a significant issue for the city, and this is a big deal, and I think to skimp on the front end of it, for a project of this magnitude, is sort of penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Mr. Filby Williams jumped in and explained further. “We have a citizens committee that will be making a recommendation to administration and council on which of the identified options we ought to pursue. I think it is the weight of that responsibility, and the speed with which we are asking those citizens to review those options, and formulate a recommendation, that influenced my judgment that, despite the expense, we ought to give those citizens as much time as possible with the authorities themselves.”
Councilor Sharla Gardner said, “We’re going to get a chance, hopefully, tonight, to meet these individuals, and hopefully learn something from them, because tonight is the first meeting.”
“First open house meeting,” clarified Council President Emily Larson, and the agenda session moved on to other business.
There was only one problem: There weren’t any representatives of MSR at the open house. The meeting was run by city staff and library staff. MSR’s contribution consisted of developing the slide show that Keith Hamre and Carla Powers used in their presentation, and designing the posters. For these services, according to a cost breakdown attached to Resolution 606, MSR was paid $3,580.
The question of whether or not $3,580 is too much to pay for a slide show has an easy answer: Yes, it is. A more serious question is why nobody familiar with the contract explained it clearly to the council—and why, indeed, they went out of their way to misrepresent it.
Did the administration give any indication that MSR would not be at all three of the meetings in the new contract? No. Everything that Mr. Filby Williams and Mr. Montgomery said at the agenda session, as well as the statement of purpose on the resolution itself, left the impression that MSR would be at all three meetings. When Councilor Gardner said that she hoped to meet the MSR experts at the open house, nobody jumped in and said, “Oh, they won’t be there.” Not even Council President Larson, council liaison to the Citizens Steering Committee, said anything. The misapprehension was allowed to stand.
There were many opportunities for the situation to have been clarified. At least three people in the room—Filby Williams, Montgomery and Larson—were in a position to do so. None did. Plenty was said about the mind-blowing expertise of MSR, but no mention of the $3,580 slide show reached the ears of city councilors.
At least, not until the next day, when I emailed the council the facts of the situation. This set off a brief commotion, and a small flurry of emails around the city, which culminated in Jim Filby Williams apologizing to city councilors for being unclear in his remarks. “I would like to apologize if I unintentionally contributed to [any] misimpression,” he emailed the council. “There was no intent to mislead.”
Filby Williams’s apology was a nice gesture. Sadly, nothing similar came from Mr. Montgomery, who apparently thought calling the council “penny-wise and pound-foolish” and accusing them of “skimp[ing] on the front end” was a good way to get the contract approved. I clearly remembered Mr. Montgomery stating, “Having the same folks run these extra meetings is a more seamless process, and ultimately, we think, more efficient.”  He did not say: “We will be using $3,580 of this money for a slide show.”
The whole thing just aggravates me. It shows how easily the truth can be fudged and obfuscated, and how willing people are to do it. If I catch it happening every other week without even trying, how often does it happen overall?

Option R

As for the library, here’s what I think. The city has proven convincingly that it is unable to maintain a library. Capital repairs were never budgeted for. Years of deferred maintenance have taken an expensive toll. Why on earth would we build a new library without addressing this serious underlying problem? Do we want to be in the same place in another 35 years? Or don’t we really care?

Here’s one idea, off the top of my head: Do nothing for now. Earmark $200,000 a year in tourism taxes for capital projects at the library. Save that money up for three years, until you have enough for a down payment on the HVAC renovation. Proceed with other repairs using the same strategy: Save up enough money to pay for part of the repair, then make the repair. Set aside some additional money for emergencies and pray everything holds together in the meantime.
We have been instructed to think of the library project in terms of our own experience. That’s the way it works at the Ramos house.
Trudging along, doing the best we can, trying to make ends meet: I propose we call this roadmap for the library’s future Option R.