When Columbia Heights officials assessed the city's library in 1999, it was obvious it was in dire need of upgrades.
The two-story, 13,000-square-foot building at 820 40th Av. NE., built in the 1960s, lacked meeting and study space, and its cinder block walls made it difficult to drill new data lines for technological improvements.
Now, almost 15 years later, voters will decide whether their city gets a new library. While almost everyone agrees the old library is out of date, many city residents don't want to pay for a new one.
If the library referendum question on the Nov. 4 ballot is approved, it will allow the city to issue 20-year bonds for up to $7 million. The owner of a home with a $116,000 market value, the city median, would pay about $54 in additional taxes in 2016 and $38 annually in ensuing years, according to city manager Walter Fehst.
Rejection would send city staff back to the drawing board to find an alternative approach to serving library patrons. It "would negate the funding the council approved for building the new library," Fehst said. "However, it [wouldn't] make the need for the library go away."
The old library "has served its useful life," he said. "It's inadequate for the types of needs of today's library."
The proposed new building, whose location is not established, would cost about $8.6 million, though Fehst believes the final total would be less. About $1.5 million in the city's reserve fund would be combined with bond money to build it.
In June, the Columbia Heights City Council voted 4-1 to approve the bond issuance and property tax increase. Then some residents drafted a petition to put the issue on the ballot.
As required by the city charter, petition supporters collected at least 1,010 valid signatures, 10 percent of the number of voters in the last election.
Gregory Sloat, who is running for a City Council seat, was among those backing the petition. He said the council shouldn't have bypassed citizens.
"With something like this, [everyone] should have a say," Sloat said. "We want the people to have a say, not just the City Council."
Sloat said he doesn't think a library "is a good idea at this time."
"Personally, no, I don't want a new library because I don't like taxes going up," he said. He said many people also view libraries as "dinosaurs" in the age of easy access to the Internet.
Columbia Heights resident Bob Odden said he doesn't know if he can afford a tax increase.
"I love our library — to me the fact that it looks 'homey' is OK," said Odden, 64, the Libertarian Party's candidate for Minnesota secretary of state. "I don't need the Taj Mahal. I think the idea of reading is to imagine things, and I can imagine myself being in a very nice setting without all of the expense."
However, not all who signed the referendum petition plan to vote against the new library bond.
"I'll vote for the library," said resident Ramona Anderson. "Throughout the country, most library referendums pass … people want to make that investment. I wouldn't mind the modest [tax] increase, but I want everyone in Columbia Heights to make that decision and own it and feel proud of it."
The support is evident in the form of a Facebook page, a Twitter handle and bright green lawn signs on many Columbia Heights' yards that say, "Vote Yes! A new library."
"People are aware we need a new library," library director Renee Dougherty said.
In 2012, the mayor appointed a citizen task force to look at the independent library (there are only four in the metro area). The group conducted listening sessions, surveys, public events, toured other libraries in the metro area and looked at potential new sites, Dougherty said.
It found that residents wanted upgrades, such as more computer terminals, sitting areas and private study rooms.
The teen section of the current library is a hallway. There are no study or meeting rooms. There are a handful of public computers, which are almost always occupied. There are chairs scattered throughout the building and a few community tables.
The parking lot has about 18 spots and is currently not large enough to handle community events.
In April 2013, the task force recommended that the city build a single-story, approximately 22,000-square-foot library building.
Earlier this year, city staff looked at construction costs and estimated that the plan would require a bond issue for up to $7 million. The city has about $1.5 million in other funding to support a new library, Fehst said.
Also on the ballot
The library question will be fighting for voters' attention. There is another item on the ballot that also could raise taxes — a capital levy request from the Columbia Heights School District that would raise $1 million annually for 10 years for building maintenance, repairs and technology for the district's schools. If approved, the owner of a $100,000 home, the district average, would see a $56 tax increase annually.
"The need [for a new library] doesn't go away," Dougherty said. "I would hope that it would not be a dead issue [if the referendum is defeated], but it would be the current council proposal that would be dead. Then we would need to look at what else we can do."