Councilwoman Carolyn Siemann and Councilman Clay Haley offer different perspectives on the future of the Carroll Public Library.
Councilwoman Carolyn Siemann and Councilman Clay Haley offer different perspectives on the future of the Carroll Public Library.
April 15, 2014

Following an acrimonious three-hour, 20-minute discussion Monday - choked with charges, recriminations and audience cat-calls and shout-backs - the Carroll City Council struggled to reach consensus on its No. 1 goal: how to improve public library services.

Mayor Adam Schweers had sought to build council support around a lease arrangement with Badding Construction for repurposing of 23,000 square feet of the Carroll Depot Business Center, the 72,000-square-foot rehabilitated former Walmart.

Instead the council asked for a menu of four choices to consider later: a five-year and 10-year lease plan with Badding Construction at the Depot Business Center, figures on an expansion of the current, 10,400-square-foot library and long-term financing numbers on construction of a 20,000-square-foot, stand-alone library with no specific location.

City staff, elected officials and "other interested parties" are expected to collect that information for a future council meeting, said City Finance Director Laura Schaefer. The city began working to modernize the library in 2001 following a study of all municipal facilities.

"This is a polarizing subject, very, very polarizing," said Councilman Dr. Eric Jensen.

Carroll attorney Greg Siemann, a former member of the Library Board of Trustees, said Carroll residents are together in their assessment of the current library as inadequate.

"The quandary for the community is what exactly needs to be done," Siemann said.

Schweers, working with Badding Construction, sought to break the logjam on improving Carroll's library by bringing forward the lease option - which would need a vote of the council and could use local-option sales-tax money to finance with no debt, and no referendum. Building a new city library or adding on to the existing library likely would involve bonds and a public vote with 60 percent support required for passage.

"If we are unwilling to lead, then the community is never going to be able to advance," Schweers said.

Badding proposed a lease of five years and seven months, with five consecutive, five-year lease options. Bottom line, said Badding Construction President Nick Badding, a 20-year lease option would save the city $3.2 million when compared with constructing or expanding a library with 20 years of debt financing, based on a bond issue of $4.5 million at 4 percent interest.

"The Depot Business Center gives you everything a great library needs," Badding said, adding that the city could always get out after five years if predictions of libraries' obsolescence proved accurate.

"The taxpayers aren't tied to a long-term commitment," Badding said.

Badding said Cedar Rapids provides library services in a former Target building, meaning Carroll won't be a pioneer with a box-store reuse.

Library Foundation president Dr. Mitch Hiscocks said his private, nonprofit organization is prepared to donate $1.3 million to the build-out and improvement of the southern end of the Depot Business Center for a library.

"We've got a very reputable landlord if we go with this plan," Hiscocks said of Badding.

Councilwoman Carolyn Siemann said in the final analysis, renting makes no sense for the city as it amounts to investing money in a private entity's capital.

"That's the truth when you lease," she said.

Greg Siemann, her husband, presented figures he said showed the Badding lease option over 20 years would cost the city $22 million in operating and rent expenses. That compares, he said, with $9 million for "just operating costs" of the current library. In that examination of figures, Greg Siemann said, operating costs at the library - not including the lease and common-area maintenance - would soar from $400,000 at the current library to $1 million in a 23,000-square-foot library by 2028.

Greg Siemann said he believes libraries are going the way of the horse in early 20th century America. They just won't be used or relevant as technology, from iPads to smartphones, is "irretrievably changing our lives," he said.

"You wouldn't want to be the last community in Iowa to build a livery-stable library," Greg Siemann said.

Greg Siemann, working with two other prominent community members, has advocated an expansion of the library facilities at the Farner Governmment Building.

"I can tell you this: If Dick Collison and myself and Matt Greteman get behind a plan, that plan will pass," Greg Siemann said. "I'm going to tell you something, if we get behind it, it will pass."

That considered, Greg Siemann said, the perception in the community is that no library expansion plan will earn the support of the public.

For her part, Carolyn Siemann said a $2.5 million bond issue referendum would clear a 60 percent super-majority.

Schweers said if the council of the late 1940s would have run Merchants Park, a privately constructed baseball stadium now operated by the city, through the same standards as the library, it never would have been built. The earlier council likely would have turned it down, he said.

The historically successful optimism in Carroll must be applied to a vision for the Carroll library, Schweers said.

Schweers, owner of Computer Concepts and a leader in the statewide Iowa Young Professionals, said he expects modern libraries to remain essential in American cities. He said a modest expansion of the current library - one that could be funded with $2.5 million - wouldn't accommodate the needs of the city.

"Technology is creating collaboration," Schweers said. "People like Apple are building buildings that are bringing everybody from around the country into one location. Why? Because no matter how much technology we have, we are human, and we have to continue to interact in order to solve problems."

Former Carroll Mayor Art Neu said he supports the Badding lease plan.

"Get out in front and lead for a change," said Neu, a former lieutenant governor of Iowa. "I think this lease is a great idea."

He said past Carroll councils and mayors have taken action from city hall on game-changing measure for the city - that not every issue should go to a full public vote, that representative democracy works.

"It will work," Neu said of the Badding plan. "Urban Renewal 1 and 2 worked. The Rec Center worked. The golf course works. If people had this vision that we've got to go to the voters for every decision, Carroll would look like something in southern Iowa. Carroll is a good town. You drive around the state, and people ask you about Carroll. They're curious about it because we're standing out here in the middle of a rural area in a town that's very vibrant, and I think that's because leaders in the past have done what they thought was right, and they don't go around taking polls for everything."

Neu said the community shouldn't buy Greg Siemann's numbers or arguments.

"I've seen this before in Des Moines (in the Iowa Legislature) where you kill something with trivia, and I'm impressed," Neu said. "I have never seen a better job of killing an idea with all kinds of minutiae."

Carolyn Siemann said her chief concern is getting the matter to a referendum of the full city.

"The community, I'll tell you, they are very upset that they do not get to vote," Carolyn Siemann said of a lease option.

Former Councilman Dr. R.W. Collison said a public vote should be central to any library advancement. More than just the future of the library is at stake, he said, suggesting the integrity of local public officials is on trial.

"You need to try to work to get the public's confidence again in what you're doing," Collison said. "A public vote does that."

Siemann said she had been lobbied intensely on the lease plan, from a variety of angles, and had even been "threatened," although she didn't elaborate in the public session about the nature of the threat or who made it.

"I insist that whatever we do we send it to a vote of the people," Carolyn Siemann said.

William J. Noth, an attorney with the Des Moines firm of Ahlers & Cooney, said a lease arrangement with the total cost under $700,000 requires a vote of the council, and that it would violate Iowa law to send the measure to a public referendum.

The referendums are intended for a bond issue associated with debt financing of a city project.

Almost everything a city buys to conduct business has been leased at some point by a city, Noth said.

"There are some cities that have done a lot of it," Noth said.

Where does the Carroll Council stand on the library?

Jerry Fleshner - Has not made his final position clear. Continues to ask questions. Asked Mayor Adam Schweers to present his vision on how the current library would be used if the city moved services to another location.

Clay Haley - Supports the lease option with Badding Construction. Says the council should represent the city and vote on the plan.

Dr. Eric Jensen - Prefers city ownership of a library to a lease option. Asked for consideration of funding a stand-alone 20,000-square-foot library, but did not provide a suggested location.

Michael Kots - Supports the lease option. Says it is a good deal and a compromise for the public.

Carolyn Siemann - Opposes the lease option with Badding Construction. Wants a public vote. Suggests a general-obligation bond issue of $2.5 million. Says an expansion at the current site is the most politically palatable, based, she says, on a Wisconsin consultant's analysis.

Tom Tait - Wants to see a 10-year lease with Badding Construction considered so the lease arrangement would cross a $700,000 threshold and go to a potential reverse referendum, allowing the public to vote on the future of the library.

Mayor Adam Schweers - Proposed the Badding Construction Depot Business Center lease option. Will bring back lease, expansion and new building options to a future council meeting.