Library Discussion on the Back-Burner with New Staff Report

Monday’s City Council meeting was shaping up to be a clash between library lovers and City of Guelph staff making an argument to cut the size of the project, but the debate’s been postponed due to a new staff report that suggests the project could cost more than previously indicated. 

In a media release sent out late Thursday afternoon, the City of Guelph said that the update and discussion about the Baker District Redevelopment will be postponed till fall because the “current library design are higher than they were understood to be” when the report was first released last Friday.

To recap, the meeting agenda released last week included a report from staff that recommended that an alternative plan be developed to limit the cost of construction of the new main library branch to $34 million. In the 2018 business case for the new main branch prepared by KPMG, council approved the proposal to construct a facility that’s 88,000 square feet with a cost of $46.25 million.

So how would the the project shed over $12 million in costs? By loosing about 23,000 square feet including the proposed 300-seat multi-use room, and what the staff report deemed as “excessive” workspace for staff.

“Staff are concerned with the capital and operating fiscal implications of the multi- use and meeting area spaces due to the competing nature/interest this space will have with other City-owned sites,” the report said. “The City is concerned that offering this space at the main library, at discounted rates, will negatively impact River Run, Museum and other city rental revenues causing upward pressure on property taxes.”

As for the work space, “This increase to the planned staff space may be a reflection of the future operating business plan of the GPL (Guelph Public Library), however in the absence of this plan, City staff are concerned with the operating impacts of this expanded space,” it read.

Many were surprised that City staff would sudden ask for such drastic changes after three public open houses, five pop-up events, and two multi-stakeholder focus sessions, with, all told, 1,400 personal interactions and 29 interactions with various community groups, organizations, and institutions, including downtown businesses, residents, churches and social clubs.

“This 11th hour arbitrary proposal around the library without advance notification to the library CEO, the board or members of the public who have engaged to date is a shocking and unacceptable replay of the kind of conduct we saw around the repositioning of the Community Park onto the Marcolongo property in Clair-Maltby,” said council watcher and library advocate Susan Watson in an email to council.

“This action has completely undermined the integrity of the process and destroyed trust with the community and key stakeholders. What is the point of itemizing all the public consultation which has taken place to date if the results of that consultation are treated with such contempt? Other than checking the required box, any consultation completed to date has been rendered meaningless.”

The anger about the manner through which the debate has been handled so far will now have to wait because according to Thursday’s press release, a new wrinkle has emerged. “Three days ago, City staff received the first cost summary of the current library design and were surprised to learn the forecasted cost is in fact $64.4 million—$14.4 million higher than understood at the time the report was authored,” it said.

The reason for the sudden $14 million jump in costs is not explained in the release, although more complete information could be offered in the amended agenda for Monday’s meeting, which will be released on Friday. For now, City officials are saying that the new information will allow staff more time to come up with options for the Baker District project.

“The information that recently came back was that the architects admitted the cost of [the library] is significantly higher, over $14 million higher, than council had approved, and so based on that new scope, staff felt that they have to take a more comprehensive look at the entire project options,” Ward 6 Councillor said on Open Sources Guelph earlier today.

“This pause allows us to work through various scenarios, and then help Council understand the implications of each as it works to balance affordability with its vision for a new library,” said acting Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart.

“A smaller library is one option. Reducing the scope of other tax-funded capital projects, increasing property taxes, an enhanced fundraising campaign, and/or introducing a special levy are others,” Stewart added. “These are among a handful of ways Council might choose to narrow the funding gap if the current library design is the preferred option.”

“And, of course, there’s also the ever moving target from the Provincial government on funding as well,” MacKinnon added. “So they just figured they need a little more time, and so we’ll take a look at it in the fall.”

No date for the rescheduled discussion on the Baker District Redevelopment plan has been set. Council recesses for the August break after this Monday’s meeting, and will not meet again until Committee of the Whole on Tuesday September 3.

To the people concerned about the City going backward on the library project MacKinnon said he understands, but council and staff have to change with the circumstances.

“With such a dramatic shift, and with that dramatic change, it makes sense why a lot of the community were very caught off guard, and were very surprised, and a lot of them are angry; Why did we do all this community consultation and spent hundreds of thousand dollars on it, if we’re just going to change recommendation?” he said.

“What people have to realize is that the information we have now is not the same as we had two years ago,” he added. “We did not have a Provincial government that greatly changed the funding that we can apply through development charges, and we also didn’t know about costing and how much that was going to come in at. And when we’re looking at any project that we have in this city, there can’t be anything that’s untouchable.”

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