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Our View: Limit public’s library liability

The expansion of the Haish Memorial Library in DeKalb looks to be a virtual certainty now that library officials have announced their plans to seek a bank loan for the remaining $6 million.

We’ve said before that the library is a community asset that clearly is in need of expansion. It has been 40 years since the last expansion of the 19,000-square-foot building, and more space is needed for the community to be better served.

But the financing for the $24 million cost of the library’s planned expansion, which would add more than 45,000 square feet to the building, is beginning to look a bit sketchy.

To break it down, the project will be paid for with:

• An $8.5 million grant from a bankrupt state of Illinois

• A $7 million bond sale by the City of DeKalb

• A $6 million bank loan

• $1 million in tax increment financing funding from DeKalb

• $1 million in library reserve funds

Almost all of the funds will come either from taxpayers or be repaid by them.

Library officials have until June 30 to raise all of the local contribution to the project in order to secure the grant. They had locked up $9 million, most of it through the city’s bonding authority. The remaining $6 million is supposed to come from private donations – the loan is simply a stopgap measure to ensure they can meet the deadline, officials say. It will extend the time they have to raise the money from a few months to three years, the term of the loan.

We understand the sense of urgency about making use of this $8.5 million grant. But we’re also a bit skeptical about borrowing against money not yet in hand.

After all, $6 million is no small amount of money to expect to pull out of this community, no matter how many change drives and bake sales are scheduled to complement the search for “big fish” donors.

The lack of a looming deadline to raise the funds also might make it easier for those running the donation drive to give up if they think they’ve done all they can do.

If that were to happen before the necessary $6 million had been raised, who would be holding the bag on repaying the balance of the library’s bank loan? Taxpayers.

It’s also taxpayers who will be paying more on their property tax bills to cover the cost of the bond sale for the project, and whose taxes went to help the library amass a $1 million surplus, and whose state government can’t pay its bills on time but has the money to hand out for library construction.

Even though this is a worthy cause and we want to see a library expansion move forward, we are concerned that the public seems to be accruing more and more liability without ever being directly asked how they feel about paying for it.

We would like to see the library create contingency plans for scaling the project back or accomplishing it in phases if there are financial difficulties in fundraising.

That at least would provide some protection for the public.

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