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Our View: Larger grant is good news for DeKalb

On the new plan for the expansion of the DeKalb Library and the renovation of the existing building, library officials are emphatic about three points:

1. The $3.1 million increase in the state grant the library will receive is a great thing for DeKalb.

2. They are absolutely certain they can raise another $1 million in donations ($2.8 million in all) to cover the increased local match cost for the project.

3. DeKalb taxpayers will not pay another nickel – above what they already were going to pay – for the project.

Provided they are correct about points two and three, we agree with them that it’s a great thing.

At a library board meeting Wednesday, library Director Dee Coover announced that the total grant the library will receive had increased to $11.6 million, up from $8.5 million. The extra money will make it possible for them to launch the project they originally intended, by including renovations to the existing 83-year-old Haish Memorial Library building along with a 46,000-square-foot addition.

The planned renovations will include restoration of flooring, ceilings and woodwork at the existing library, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places. The library also will be made handicapped-accessible throughout.

In order to receive the additional money, the library needed to come up with another $1 million in local matching funds, which it intends to do by borrowing more money from three local banks.

Why should we believe that the library can raise $2.8 million in donations to repay the bank loans? Coover and library board President Clark Neher say they already have secured pledges for about $1 million in donations to be paid over time, and they haven’t even begun soliciting contributions from more deep-pocketed donors. In the meantime, the library will borrow the money it needs at 3.25 percent interest, with the borrowing costs to come from the library’s operating budget, Coover said.

DeKalb taxpayers already are contributing to the effort. Using its home-rule authority, the city is borrowing $6.5 million to contribute to the effort, a loan that will be repaid with an 8-cent property tax rate increase. The city also is contributing $2 million in tax increment financing funds to the project. The property tax increase will cost the owner of a house with an assessed value of $150,000 who claims the homestead exemption about $35 a year.

Voters did not have the opportunity to weigh in on the project through a referendum, something city and library officials said was impractical because of the short time they had between when they learned they were eligible for the grant in December and the April elections. The public’s inability to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the project chafes some, an irritation that we understand. Voters should have a say on proposals for tax increases. Now the scope of the project also has been expanded, again without public input.

However, the grant money does present a tremendous opportunity. The existing library is too small for modern DeKalb and it is not accessible for all. Securing another $3 million for the project also ensures that the entire project actually will be completed without relying on a community fundraising effort that could have gone on for years.

The $11.6 million in state funds guarantees local taxpayers will get a good return on their investment. An opportunity to make use of a grant of this size is certainly worth seizing. Provided that property taxes are ruled out as a source of any additional funds for the project and the library succeeds in reaching its fundraising goals, this is a positive development for the city and its historic library.

Now that the library is getting a bigger and better space, the community should challenge the library staff to make sure they provide services and resources in that building that the entire community – regardless of income and technological access – can use. We believe library leaders will accept and meet that challenge.

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