Several Metro Council members said Friday they remain skeptical of plans to tear down the River Center branch library and replace it with a new high-tech library supporters say would be a downtown showplace.
“I’m totally against building a $21 million library downtown,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker, who serves as the 12-member Metro Council’s chairman.
“I think that is irresponsible,” Walker added. “I believe it can be renovated, modernized and brought up to date technologically for a few million dollars. I believe a majority of the council feels the same way that I do.”
Walker’s comments come while the Library Board of Control mounts an effort to try to persuade council members on the merits of the project.
Library Board Chairwoman Kizzy Payton said library officials haven’t done a good job of explaining why they think a new library building along the lines of the one that has been proposed is the best choice for the city.
The current plans, which Payton said could be revised after hearing the council’s views, call for tearing down the existing 32-year-old library and building a new 57,000-square-foot facility at the site — nearly twice the size of the current building.
Mayor-President Kip Holden’s budget for 2011 included $19 million in dedicated library tax funds for the project, as the library board requested. Total costs for the project have been estimated at $21.4 million, including an underground parking lot with 46 spaces.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker, whose district includes downtown and who favors building a new facility, said it won’t be like a traditional library that is primarily used to house and lend books.
“The whole usage is more technology-based and a lot different,” Wicker said. “If we were just building the new building to house books, I would not be supportive of that.”
Other supporters, including Downtown Development District Director Davis Rhorer, say that a new library with meeting rooms and new technologies would be an asset to North Boulevard Town Square, which is a focal point for civic and cultural attractions downtown.
Several council members, however, echoed Walker’s view that the library system’s objectives could be achieved through less expensive renovations.
“I think what’s been proposed when it comes to the Metro Council will be dead as a doorknob,” Councilman Chandler Loupe said.
Councilman Trae Welch said he believes library officials can accomplish everything they want without having to tear down the existing building.
“I still don’t think building a brand new building downtown is a good idea,” Welch said.
Councilman Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois also said he thinks renovation would be a better approach.
“I would be for kind of fluffing it up a little bit, renovating it inside and out,” Bourgeois said. “I wouldn’t spend more than $5 million on that building.”
Councilman Scott Wilson said library officials can “talk to me until they’re blue in the face” but won’t be able to convince him the existing building needs to be torn down and replaced. He said the library’s limited use doesn’t warrant building a large, new facility.
Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said a controversy over the architect selection process has “really muddied the waters.” She said she favors putting a hold on the project to give the city-parish time to look at modifying the way that process works.
Councilman Ulysses “Bones” Addison told library board members at a meeting Thursday that it is their responsibility to justify the expenditure of public funds.
He noted that seven council members “were not satisfied” and tried to pull funding for the project from Holden’s 2011 budget last year, falling one vote short of the supermajority of eight votes required to make budget changes.
However, a simple majority of seven council votes are required to approve contracts — meaning they could vote to prevent the project from moving forward.
“I voted to leave it in the budget but I was not comfortable and I am not comfortable here today,” Addison told the library board. “You need to justify the expenditure. If you can’t justify the expenditure, I will vote against it. That’s a promise.”
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who also voted last year to keep funding in the budget, also said she’d “like to look at it again.”
She said information she’s received since then has led her to believe $21 million for the new library “may be excessive.”
John Carpenter, chief administrative officer to Holden, said Friday the mayor “absolutely supports building the new library. That’s been his position all along.”
He said Holden thought it was time for the library board to take another look at the project and discuss it with the council. He said Holden would like to see the situation resolved in the shortest time period practical.”
Carpenter added, “It’s their business how they want to proceed with it.”
Payton said she plans to meet individually with council members to hear their concerns, and library system officials may make a presentation to the full council.