AUSTIN (KXAN) — A massive construction project in downtown Austin is coming with a massive price tag. City leaders say the new central library located on Cesar Chavez Street at the old Seaholm site will cost $120 million.
But we’ve seen the price go up before and with so many expensive items stacking up we investigate if it’s using your tax dollars wisely.
As the sun came up over downtown May 10, more than 1,000 trucks drove in and out all day and all night for the biggest concrete pour in Central Texas history. The foundation of what the city’s calling, “the library for the future.”
Rebecca Schwarz and her 9-year-old Sylvia come to the old central library at least once a week. It’s set to close in just under 2 years.
“We’re really excited to see the new library. It’s a huge money saver for us,” she said. “If I had to buy that amount of books to give myself and my kids I just couldn’t afford it.”
And pretty soon Sylvia will have even more books to choose from.
The new library will be nearly double the size of the current one. An underground garage, a restaurant and a special event center will hold more than 300 people. And that’s not all. There’s also an outdoor cafe and an art gallery.
“A library should be a place of learning and information. It shouldn’t be a coffee shop,” Don Zimmerman with the Travis County Taxpayers Union said. “This library doesn’t have to cost so much….The price tag on this is astronomical.”
The original budget for the project was $90 million. More than 60 percent of voters said yes to that in the 2006 bond election.
“They can build a very good library that can serve the public for $20 or $30 million,” Zimmerman explained.
But library facilities manager John Gillum says $90 million wasn’t enough.
In fact, the original estimate was $125 million. In 2010 he asked for more money and the city council said yes to $30 million of taxpayer money, without taxpayer approval. The same year they denied requests for extra 911 staffing, four firefighters and seven police officers.
“You could build the building but you couldn’t put books or technology or pay for your architects or engineers,” Gillum said.
He also says he had to move $6 million from one part of the budget to another just to cover the cost of furniture and technology like iPads for people to check out.
With budgets so tight across the city, how does the city justify spending $120 million in taxpayer dollars for this project?
“Because it’s going to be a “boon” to the city,” Gillum said.
But over the last three years both the number of books checked out and people visiting the old library has gone down. City officials blame the declining numbers on a lack of parking and also nearby construction.
“It has been a very difficult building to access,” Gillum said.
The new library will have three times the amount of parking and an entrance off Cesar Chavez Street.
For Rebecca and Sylvia Schwarz it can’t come soon enough.
“I’m a big believer in keeping my kids in books and keeping their reading level up and I could not afford to do that,” Rebecca said. “I am happy to pay some taxpayer money.”
KXAN reached out to every city council member to ask them why they approved the additional funding even though voters only approved $90 million. Not one city council member responded.
The library facilities director tells us in the future the city needs to be more honest and transparent about how much money the city will actually need for projects. He also promised the current price tag won’t go up any further.
The library is set to open in November of 2016.
KXAN wanted to compare the price tag on Austin’s new central library to other new libraries throughout the country. They were libraries city officials also looked at as examples before starting construction here.
The main public library in Jacksonville built in 2005 cost less than Austin’s at $100 million. But San Diego’s new library had a price tag of $185 million and Seattle’s public library cost $165 million.