New library: Q&A

Published 9:23 am Wednesday, November 2, 2011

First in a series

GATESVILLE – Gates County officials have been peppered with questions as they move forward with several capital improvement projects in the county.

To learn more about the need for these projects, the Gates County Index arranged for a meeting with Board of Commissioners Chairman Graham Twine, Vice Chairman Kenneth Jernigan and County Manager Toby Chappell. That two-hour meeting covered questions and answers regarding the new library, the takeover and expansion of the wastewater treatment facility along US 158, the planned renovation of the county’s historic courthouse and other “talking points.”

The first in this series of articles deals with the new library.

Please go back over the main “talking points” of why a new library is needed.

Jernigan: “Certainly it was the bad condition of the old courthouse; it’s been in there 10 or 15 years, or longer. There’s been very little work done in the old courthouse. We can’t just go in and change the footprint of the old courthouse because it’s on the National Register (of Historic Places). We felt like getting the library out of there would help us secure grant money to restore the old courthouse.”

Twine: “The way this library issue started was through the USDA, there was some money possibly available to do some renovations to the old courthouse. We called them and they sent an engineer to look at the building and he said there was no way that USDA would loan any monies to do repairs to that building for use as a library, but they would loan money to build a new library. He said the old courthouse was not designed for use as a library.”

Is USDA the funding source for the new library?

Twine: “Actually, no. We’ve gone out to local banks and gotten some numbers from them to do the library. We plan to make a decision at our next commissioners’ meeting on which way we’re going to go with that. I will recommend we look at a 10-year or 15-year loan, but we’re committed to having this library paid for in five years by using the school debt money that we’ll retire (finish the payments) at the end of the 2013-14 fiscal year.”

Note: A copy of a two-page plan concerning the financing of the new library was supplied to the Gates County Index. It showed proposals, with varying interest rates (as low as 1.77%), from Southern Bank, RBC Bank and BB&T. The loan would need to be secured soon to ensure the initial payment of $75,275 be made by the spring of 2012. The FY 2012-13 payment for the new library will be $148,022….both the spring 2012 and the 2012-13 payments would come from the General Fund’s Unreserved Fund Balance. The next two annual payments (for 2014-15 and 2015-16) would each be $562,726 (the current amount of the school debt payments). The final payment of $170,000 would come in FY 2016-17. Chappell said this plan would require no tax increase and would only impact the Unreserved Fund Balance over the life of the loan by a total of $86,586 (based on $136,711 placed back in that fund in FY 2013-14 upon the retirement of the school debt).

One commissioner has raised concerns over the actual use of the current library… would you answer those concerns?

Twine: “Our library is a service, just like DSS, just like the Community Center. The library is not designed as a money-making department, it’s designed for citizens to use. Some of the numbers that have come out for current usage at our library is based on library cards. There’s a lot of usage in our library that has nothing to do with a library card. For the last 10 years the library staff punches a clicker every time someone comes through the door, no matter if they check something out or not.”

Chappell: “Someone may come in and use one of the computers for eight hours and leave. Under the library card usage numbers, that person would not be counted as a user. Part of what the library is used for are the computers, for genealogy research, for schoolchildren researching larger projects….it’s not exclusively for the number of books that are checked out.”

Twine: “A lot of the usage is for children coming to the library for story time over the summer months, sometimes up to as many as 50 children sitting down and reading books that were not checked out….that counts as usage. The numbers we had from Pat (Familiar, the county’s Librarian) for the past three years was somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 18,000 people on the clicker. That’s usage. It may not be all usage where a library card was used to check out materials, that’s true usage of people that have gone through the door.”

Chappell: “If you look closely at some of the other numbers that have been published, they have dealt with those (ages) 18 and above and used them as the percentage of books checked out and the math worked out from there. That misses an entire constituency of those (ages) 17 and younger that have legitimate, wholesome uses of the library.”

Twine: “They’re (those 17-and-under) are not voters, but they are a part of the 12,000 people that are in the county. They have to be served just like everyone else.”

Was there any thought given to permanently relocating the library to an existing building rather than making the investment to build a new one?

Chappell: “I would question what building is there that could serve as a temporary library.”

Twine: “There was some speculation that we did, but the county does not own a building that would be fit to use as a library.”

Chappell: “Beyond that fact there are serious concerns if we moved it into an available private building. The one that has come up is the old Family Foods in Gatesville. That building would have to be retrofitted to make it a library. That would cost a significant amount of money. Then what about parking? What about infrastructure? Even if we moved it there temporarily with the thought of returning it to the old courthouse upon complete renovation of that building, you’re looking at a long term commitment because if and when the old courthouse is renovated it will be done in phases. By the time that project is finished we could have built and paid for a new stand-alone library.”

Jernigan: “The county has never had a building that was only dedicated for use as a library. The original library was first in the old courthouse, then moved to this building (the county’s administrative offices), then moved to the GITS building and then back to the old courthouse. With the way technology is today you need separation in a library for computers, for small children, for adults and a quiet room for reading.”

Chappell: “If you look at what we have now you’ll see we have a library crammed inside a building not designed to be a library; not that we built a building to house a library. We didn’t allow the function to determine the form; we allowed for what we had available to work. Now we have an opportunity to make a better decision.”

Why wasn’t the decision to build a new library left to the citizens by way of a voter referendum?

Twine: “We talked about that when it came up. We contacted the LCG (Local Government Commission) about a referendum. The lawyers there told us that decisions about libraries were left up to the commissioners to make. If there was a bond referendum or levying a special tax, then that would have to be decided by the voters. There was an effort by someone to bend the general statutes, saying if we if we did this a certain way then you could get around the statutes and hold a referendum (for the library project).”

Chappell: “If you dedicate a (tax) levy (to pay for the project), you can hold a referendum. The statutes explicitly say when you can hold a referendum. In all other situations you cannot. We were in the all other category. That’s not my opinion or that of the commissioners, that’s the opinion of Bob Joyce of the School of Government and Don Wright, the general counsel of the North Carolina Board of Elections. We’re not lawyers, so it’s better to defer to their good judgment.”

Jernigan: “We’re definitely trying to stay on the right side of the law. We’re not trying to bend the law.”

Note: A copy of Joyce’s opinion, dated Aug. 30, 2010, was supplied to the Gates County Index. It stated, “The general rule is that a unit of government in North Carolina may call a referendum only if there is a statute that specifically authorizes that kind of referendum. There is no statute that authorizes a county to call a referendum on the question of whether to build a library.” Joyce did note that the county could conduct a voter referendum if they chose to levy a tax that would be used for the purpose of repaying the loan used for library construction.

Why is an architect needed to draw plans for a public building?

Twine: “It is stated within the state’s General Statutes of certain measures that have to be followed if you build a building using public funds. You cannot use the design-build method. You have to use a qualified architect. We are not library builders; we hired a professional person that builds libraries and have them determine, along with input from our library board and our library staff, what we needed in a library.”

Chappell: “When that issue first came up I again contacted the experts at the School of Government. I had talked to two other professionals and asked them about the design-build concept and the legalities of it and they said it would not be legal in this situation. To double confirm that I contacted Norma Houston at the School of Government. She said I had been advised correctly – the design-build construction method is not statutorily authorized for state and local government building construction projects. The county could only do a design-build project by receiving special authorization from the General Assembly or by approval from the State Building Commission, per General Statute 143-128.”

Jernigan: “I think this design-build catch word, especially when it comes to roads and bridges, came about due to shovel-ready projects that weren’t really shovel-ready. I think that was done to circumvent that in an effort to put people back to work quicker and qualify those projects for the shovel-ready federal money.”

Chappell: “Would we use the design-build method if that was made available to us…maybe, but still that would be a decision of the commissioners. Let’s say we did decide to use the design-build concept with the new library, then we have to face this fact – we don’t know how to build a library. If it was something we do routinely and we didn’t need expert opinion on, they I’d say yes, let’s design build it. But we don’t have that luxury. What we do know is how to start the process of getting the architect and engineer in place. After that we have to rely on their expertise. We as county officials and our citizens are better served if we just let them do what they do best instead of us serving as the general contractor.”

Jernigan: “The reason we chose this particular architect (LS3P) is they have built 15 or so libraries over the past 10 years. They’re the experts.”

Twine: “We met with the builder, whose name came up during one of our meetings, the person that design-built the new addition to one of our local churches. He told us a design-build number on a church social hall and a library was not like comparing apples to oranges, it was more like comparing apples to an orchard. He told us his niche was building social halls for churches, not building libraries.”

Where are you currently at on the library project? What was the architect’s original plans for square footage? If the construction bids, which have yet to be let, come back higher than anticipated, will you opt to further reduce the size of the library?

Chappell: “After they originally met with the library board, they came back with a huge number, somewhere around 11,000 to 12,000 square feet. We understood why they wanted all those added features, but the commissioners knew the bottom line in price was nowhere close to what they were willing to pay. Now it’s down to 7,500 to 8,100 square feet.”

Twine: “We capped this project at $1.5 million. This project will remain within what we have budgeted.”

Jernigan: “The 7,500 to 8,100 square feet right now is not etched in stone, it can be smaller.”

Chappell: “Or it can be bigger. If the bids come in lower than expected, the commissioners have the option to add something back they originally removed from the plans. We’ll have some flexibility once the bids come back.”

Is this $1.5 million a turn key project – to include furniture, etc?

Jernigan: “I want it so that when we turn that key to the library’s door for the first time we have not spent over $1.5 million. That’s the furniture, the parking lot, the architect’s fees…not one penny over $1.5 million.”

Chappell: “If we get to $1.5 million and realize there are other things we want to do, then we become more aggressive in the fundraising realm.”

Twine: “We’ve already discussed the possibility of selling memorial bricks for a brick walk at the library or allowing for naming rights to a particular room or for the entire library. All of this is on the table to reduce the costs to our citizens. We’ve also contacted several of our banks regarding funds that will help with technology. They may donate some new computers.”

What drove the decision to build a new library at the Merchants Commerce Center rather than in Gatesville?

Twine: “We made contact with several people that had land in Gatesville. We were trying to see if anyone was willing to donate land. At one point we had a person interested in donating land in Gatesville, but did not want the library located that close to their house. The county does own a piece of land on the other side of DSS (Department of Social Services building). But that’s located in a flood zone and it would be absolutely ridiculous to build a library, or anything for that matter, in a flood zone. We contacted several people just on the edge of Gatesville about buying some land. We wound-up evaluating three parcels of land, two on the outskirts of Gatesville and one at Eason’s Crossroads, to understand the feasibility and costs of putting a library there. It came down to feasibility, the best place to put it cost-wise was Eason’s Crossroads. One of the reasons there was that the landowner donated the property; the other was there will be septic/sewer service out there. Up front, that gives us a head start of about $200,000 just by having that particular piece of property. That may not be the most popular piece of property, but it’s a financially sound decision.”

Summing up his points about the new library, Chappell stressed that the project will be paid for without a tax increase.

“To make this very clear, if anyone says there will have to be a tax increase to pay for the library either (a) doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or (b) is lying to you,” Chappell said.

As far as past references to the size of public libraries in neighboring counties, Chappell said the total square footage in Bertie County (two facilities, one in Windsor, one in Aulander) is 6,900 square feet; in Hertford County (three facilities, one each in Ahoskie, Murfreesboro and Winton) there is a total of 17,822 square feet and the one in Northampton County, which was recently expanded, is 8,100 square feet.

“So to say that Gates County is going to build a new library that’s between 7,500 and 8,100 square feet is not that far out of line with our neighboring counties,” Chappell noted.

Chappell also said the timing was right to invest in capital improvement projects.

“The labor and materials are as cheap as they’re going to be and there is one interest rate we’ve been given that’s 1.77 percent,” he said. “Now’s the time if you’re going to do a project.”

Another point of interest was the architect’s costs to this point (which will total near $160,000). Chappell said the first phase of that work involved site evaluation and selection, schematic design (which actually turned out to be three different concepts), and multiple concept meetings with the public, commissioners and library board. Phase two covers design development, construction documents, bidding/negotiating, administration of the contract and project close-out.

“That’s a lot more than just drawing plans on a piece of paper,” Chappell concluded.

Next in the series: The need for wastewater treatment expansion.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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