By D.L. BENNETT www.ajc.com
Fulton County officials are about to test residents' commitment to libraries with a proposal to raise property taxes to pay for a huge building program.
Depending on the final numbers, Fulton residents could be asked to raise taxes as much as 0.4 mills to pay for bonds for a program likely to cost more than $350 million.
County commissioner Robb Pitts said he thinks residents are ready for a world class library system and are willing to pay for it.
"Libraries are catalysts for economic development," Pitts said. "They are gathering places. When was our last bond issue [for libraries]? Thirty years ago. We won't have this opportunity again. I think the people will approve it."
The program commissioners will consider Wednesday would build eight libraries, expand two and renovate 24 more at a cost of $225 million. There's also a proposal to build a signature central library downtown for another $173 million plus land costs.
Library officials expect to spend at least $8 million in yearly operational costs when it's all built.
The building program started at about $100 million originally last year but has increased as officials have added for land, inflation and other costs.
Pitts suggested the a new downtown library as a last-minute addition to the program. The current building, a boxy, concrete structure with a foreboding, nearly windowless facade, was designed in the brutalist style by noted architect Marcel Breuer nearly 30 years ago.
"Until now, I had never really focused on how ugly that thing really is. If you walk around three sides, it's all concrete," Pitts said.
Pitts hopes it can be sold to offset the cost of the new 300,000-square-foot central library. A new central library would also allow library officials to subtract from this proposal the $34 million to renovate the downtown library already in the main program.
John Szabo, library director, said commissioners will have to decide at what point the building program becomes so ambitious that voters reject it solely on cost. "That's a good debate to have," he said.
Commissioners need to approve a program Wednesday so a resolution calling for a referendum can be drawn up and approved in two weeks. County lawyers said that timing is needed so the final program can be put on the November ballot.
As planned, the program renovates or builds new libraries in almost every community around the county.
George Ragsdale, who lives in Milton, said he was excited the program calls for building a library in the north Fulton city. However, he's not sure the program is well thought out or whether the new central library is a good use of public money."They've mismanaged so many things so much. ... I'm not willing to invest in it," Ragsdale said.
Dan Young, who lives in the Sandtown just south of Atlanta, said he would vote to increase his taxes to improve libraries."I don't mind extra taxes for things that have results you can see and broad benefits," Young said.