Will taxpayers ante up $13m more for old library's renaissance?

Published July 31, 2007 12:14 am
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Pinched by soaring construction costs and staggered by green sticker shock, officials of The Leonardo at Library Square want city taxpayers to cough up an additional $13 million for the renovation of Salt Lake City's newest museum.

In essence, the $20 million makeover of the former Main Library has morphed into a $33 million enterprise.

Mayor Rocky Anderson is pushing the plan - he has sent e-mails to City Council members - and insiders are scrambling to lobby for a sales-tax revenue bond. The term would extend 20 years.

Mary Tull, Leonardo's director, points to staggering spikes on everything from seismic stabilization and asbestos removal to certifying the building as environmentally sound.

"We have been struggling with the architects and the city to try to get the architectural budget down during this horrendous scope of inflation," Tull said. "It's unreal."

City Councilman Soren Simonsen, an architect and urban planner, empathizes over the swollen construction costs. He supports the sales-tax bond and argues the city has a responsibility to provide a safe atmosphere in one of its marquee venues.

"To me, it's not unreasonable," Simonsen said about the public purse that will carry a debt service in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. "The longer we sit on this, the more it's going to cost."

But Councilman Dave Buhler, a mayoral hopeful, calls the tab "totally irresponsible."

"It's more that Rocky, on his way out the door, is proposing that we bail him out," Buhler fumed. "We can't afford it."

Buhler says sales-tax bonds can become a burden, especially in tight times.

"It's easy for an outgoing mayor to pass off a debt and tell the council to pay it off for the next 20 years," he said. "It's not the way I want to do things."

Anderson, on a seven-day seminar cruise off the coast of Alaska for The Nation magazine, was unavailable for comment. In his absence, officials from the mayor's office with details about the funding plan did not return calls.

Salt Lake City voters agreed in 2003 to raise their property taxes to generate $10 million for the renovation and installation of new exhibits. Early last year, Leonardo officials announced they privately had raised another $10 million to trigger the match for the former Main Library at 200 East and 500 South. (Last summer, the city's Redevelopment Agency also funneled $750,000 toward the overhaul.)

Since then - and even before - construction costs have surged.

Tull estimates the $10 million 2003 bond should have been $17.6 million when adjusted for inflation. Under the new construction climate, she notes, contingencies have climbed from 10 percent to 30 percent, tacking on another $2 million. And she says the seismic budget, which ballooned by more than $1 million, was "woefully low."

Another hurdle: The mayor has required The Leonardo be certified by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Tull places that price at $1.2 million.

Named after Leonardo da Vinci, the building will include art, science and culture in the spirit of the Renaissance man's ideas.

Three partners - Utah Science Center, Global Artways and Center for Documentary Arts - plan to call The Leonardo home and offer classes, films, photos, exhibits, conferences and lectures. It will include an indoor piazza and house the state's first science and technology center.

Tull says organizers also plan to project films on the building's flat-panel exterior walls in the tradition of The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"We have a ton of good news in that [programming] area," she said. "It's really the building" that is posing problems.

The Leonardo is scheduled to open in spring 2009, in conjunction with the birthday of its famous namesake.

But City Councilman Carlton Christensen is not convinced the city should pick up the new $13 million tab - especially without public approval.

"Morally, we have the obligation to go to voters to ask them," he said.

Christensen, who notes a "significant donor" fell through, says Leonardo fundraisers have not been as successful as they hoped. He calls the notion of a new tax "disingenuous" after already tapping taxpayers for $10 million in 2003 - at a cost of $4.50 a year on the average homeowner.

"I have a hard time going that far," Christensen said, "because the sales-tax bond becomes a diversion of our public fund."

The council, which must decide by the end of August on sending items to the November ballot, could address the dilemma during its next meeting in two weeks. But members face another quandary: whether to place a $200 million property tax bond on the ballot for a new public-safety complex. The council fears referendum fatigue.

Still, Simonsen says, The Leonardo someday could challenge the current Main Library - and even Temple Square - for tourism supremacy in the capital.

And when one considers the revenue from those visits, Simonsen says, ''I don't think it's that difficult to justify.''


The Leonardo's money trail

* Voters approve $10 million property-tax bond in 2003.

* Donors match the bond with $10 million two years later.

* City's RDA kicks in $750,000 in 2006.

* Mayor's office now seeking $13 million sales-tax bond.

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