Manatee County commissioners debate whether a $19.9 million budget is necessary for a Lakewood Ranch library.
When Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge was informed that the cost of East County’s future library had risen from $14.9 million to $19.9 million in the county’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget, he described his feeling as “sticker shock.”
Though Administrator Scott Hopes later said some of the cost increase originated from amenities that would be shared between the library and other facilities to be constructed as part of the Premier Sports Campus expansion, Van Ostenbridge said the price was still too high considering the property is already county-owned and the original plan for the library came with a $7 million price tag. Prior Observer reporting shows the original budget for the library was actually $5.14 million.
“I'm not advocating against building a library out east,” Van Ostenbridge said. “I'm just advocating to build a $7 million library out east. If that means that it's not going to be the Taj Mahal, if that means we have to plan a different building, then maybe that's something that should be considered.”
Commissioners spent about 30 minutes at a June 16 budget work session debating the future East County library and its projected cost. Those include a delay in the construction process that saw costs increase dramatically.
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said the rising cost was caused in part by a lack of communication between the commission and county staff. Baugh said a design was originally created after soliciting feedback from residents at public meetings but the staff added many changes to the plan.
“It really wasn't coming before the board as much,” Baugh said. “Staff was designing what they wanted, and there were constantly changes to it. Every time you change, there's an added expense.”
Van Ostenbridge said the county should return to the design table and redraw a building to fit the county’s budget.
“The library community is actively moving the goalposts to justify a $20-plus million new facility,” Van Ostenbridge said. “It would be unwise for us to pursue what looks to be a money pit. In the private sector, if costs started to spiral out of control the way they have in this situation, the project would not continue to be pursued or the project would be downsized to fit our budget.”
Commissioner George Kruse viewed the situation differently. He said items have been added to the budget over time to adapt to the needs of local residents. He also said the library was always a moving target, rather than a fixed cost that was meant to stay at $5.14 million.
“Are we going to put a second floor on this?” Kruse said. “Do we want to save money today and build a one-story building? We went from some simple systems for utilities to adding full chillers and a big data center and all this other stuff. So there have been things that have been added, because we said, ‘Hey, it's cheaper to add them upfront than add them later.’”
Kruse said it would be risky to scale down the size and scope of the library given East County’s population growth and lack of a current library, or even a decent community center. Kruse said libraries are becoming more like community centers rather than simply a place to read books, adding that East County needs a place where clubs can meet and Manatee County can hold meetings that make it easier to reach out to the community.
“I don't think we're building some insane library,” Kruse said. “This is not even close to what we have (at the downtown Bradenton library).”
The rising costs of building materials and labor, Baugh said, would make it impossible to construct a library for $7 million, as Van Ostenbridge suggested. Kruse agreed, saying such costs have increased an average of 7% to 10% per year. He said it was a big factor in the library’s rising cost and added that inflation has risen quickly in the past six months.
“It's unfortunate that we didn't take advantage of a few years of lower inflation in conjunction with the lower interest rates to allow us to bond this,” Kruse said. “Hindsight is 20-20. It was a different board and a different mentality. There's no right or wrong answer.”
Hopes said the increase from $14.9 million to $19.9 million was largely caused by the addition of items that will be used by multiple buildings on the library’s corner of the Premier expansion — a central chiller system that will be used for air conditioning, a larger retention pond and larger parking lot. Revenue from facilities that use those amenities, such as the soccer fields, could then be used to help pay for the shared chiller or larger parking lot.
One added item that won’t be shared among multiple facilities is a shade area for the library’s rooftop.
Baugh said the commission will need to take a close look and decide if the additions are all necessary. She also said the county should look at library amenities that were part of the previous $14.9 million budget to ensure everything included is necessary for the library’s success, especially given her desire to balance the library with an array of needs across the county.
“We need to get things back under control as much as we can and make sure that we’re living within our means,” Baugh said. “I think we need to be very careful to make sure that what is coming forward is not coming forward because it's what's the county staff wants, but really what is needed for the residents themselves.”
On the other hand, Baugh said any cuts should be made in a way that will allow the library room to expand if necessary in the future. She also said adding a second floor, which was the biggest factor in increasing the library’s budget from $10 million from $14.9 million a year ago, will address current and future population growth in East County at a cheaper price than it would cost to add a second floor five or 10 years down the road.
Baugh said the items she views as necessary for the library include meeting rooms, rooftop space, a computer lab, a storage area and a room for purchasing books.
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