Budget increases plague Austin’s new Central Library

Austin's New Central Library (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)
Austin's New Central Library as of June 2016 (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The price tag for Austin’s new Central Library — that is already $30 million over budget — is now going to cost the city even more. At this week’s city council meeting, the city is asking for approval of another $1.3 million to fund the necessary items for the completion of the project, which is currently being built on West Cesar Chavez Street at Shoal Creek.

According to a memo Interim Public Works Director Robert Hinojosa sent to the mayor and council on Friday, the reason the city needs more money is because of adjustments to the project’s design contracts. Services required in the six months beyond the contractual completion date are said to include reviewing contractor submittals, addressing design issues and other administrative changes needed due to construction. Hinojosa says the funding is available in the library department’s current fiscal year budget and will not impact programs or services.

The completion date for a finished building has moved from March to November of this year, ultimately pushing the new library’s opening date to spring of 2017. Hinojosa says it is “critical” for the council to approve the item this week to keep the project on schedule. According to the Central Library’s website, substantial completion was expected June 16. This comes at a time the Austin Public Library tells us visitors are declining. Just at the current Faulk Central Library, customers and checkouts both dropped seven percent from 2014 to 2016.

KXAN sat down with Ginger Young, a school librarian, and her daughter at Faulk Central Library Monday afternoon. She feels funding a new multi-million dollar central library is a worthy cause.

“The library is for everyone in the city so if we’re going to invest in something, I think it’s a worthwhile investment,” Young said.

But some, like Council Member Don Zimmerman, argue the investment wasn’t clear from the get go.

KXAN Central Library Timeline 650x250 PNG

“I think the downtown library was sold to us on deceptive practices. And this is just more of the same,” Zimmerman said, referencing the project’s rising price tag and approval to reallocate $1.3 million on Thursday’s agenda. “The millions of dollars of cost overruns just apparently continue to pile up.”

In 2006, Austin voters approved a $90 million bond for the 198,000 square foot downtown library. In 2010, library facilities manager John Gillum said $90 million wasn’t enough which led to the city asking for another $30 million, bringing the cost up to $120 million. Gillum said back in 2006, he told the Bond Advisory Committee the project had a projected budget of $125 million. Yet only $90 million went on the ballot.

“It was always known that even though the bond election only provided $90 million, that we were going to have to come up, by one means or another, with the rest of the project funding,” Gillum said.

“When you say it was always known, do you think the public knew?” KXAN’s Kylie McGivern asked Gillum, who responded, “Ah, I doubt that the public is that uniform and that everybody knows the same thing. I know that I was outspoken about it.”

He says the city learned a lot from the 2006 bond election.

“We try to be smarter about that now and now allow that to happen, and just go, you know, this is the dollar amount it’s going to take to finish it. If you can’t make it fit, it’s going to have to slide to another bond election,” Gillum said.

In May 2014, KXAN reported that Gillium promised the price tag wouldn’t go up any more. Something we reminded him of on Monday.

“Well I hope I didn’t promise, but I’m just happy not to be asking for funding, that I was actually able to accommodate extending their contract through monies we’ve already had,” Gillum said, admitting if the project wasn’t delayed the money wouldn’t have to be used in this way. “If you’ve ever remodeled your house, you probably understand the things that can happen to you in construction, that you probably wind up paying a bit more for than you originally intended. It seems to be the nature of construction.”

Gillum said the $1.3 million would have gone toward moving into the building, new commodities in the building, contracts to take care of the elevators and wash the windows, etc.

“Their argument is, because we’ve already taken this money from you, therefore we’re entitled to spend it on an over-budget library. And I think that argument is absurd and it’s insulting to our taxpayers,” Zimmerman told KXAN. “This is a very deceptive and dangerous practice, to undersell the project and claim it’s going to cost less and then do non-approved debt as much as they want to make the project as expensive as they think they can get away with.”

The city says the consultant is at least partially responsible for project delays, while it is the consultant’s stance that it’s owed compensation for increased costs and other services.

Gillum stands by the project and its progress, saying, “This central library is going to enrich the whole library system beyond anybody’s imagination, not matter how much I tell them.”

Once completed, the new library will have an underground garage, a restaurant, a special event center along with an outdoor cafe and an art gallery.

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