UPDATED: Fayetteville to consider special library millage election

Photo by Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

UPDATE: The City Council voted 6-1 to call the special election. Read about the decision in our recap of the meeting.

The fastest-growing city in the state needs to expand its overcrowded library, officials said this week.

City Council members on Tuesday listened to a plan that, if approved, would increase property taxes to help pay for a major expansion of the Fayetteville Public Library.

Talk of improving the library first began in 2012, but it’s taken several years to develop a vision for construction and financing of the plan.

Officials this week turned in petitions with about 500 signatures of Fayetteville residents calling for a special election that would increase the library’s current 1-mill property tax to a total of 3.7 mills. The additional 2.7 mills would cost taxpayers an extra $54 each year for every $100,000 worth of property owned. It includes 1.2 mills for construction and 1.5 mills for operating costs. Once construction bonds are paid off, the tax would be lowered to 2.5 mills.

The old City Hospital property, located south of the Fayetteville Public Library at Rock Street and School Avenue, is the planned home of a facility expansion that will nearly double the size of the current library.

File photo

If aldermen approve the plan, Fayetteville voters would head to the polls on Aug. 9 for a special election.

Paul Becker, the city’s finance director, said the special election is expected to cost between $25,000-$40,000. However, that cost appears to have already been covered.

Maylon Rice, treasurer of the library’s board of directors, told aldermen Tuesday that a donor has agreed to pay the full cost of the election.

“The special election will cost the city zero dollars,” said Rice.

David Johnson, the library’s executive director, has said several times that the facility has reached its capacity much quicker than expected, thanks to an overwhelming increase in the city’s population.

“The library was designed to be a 20-year building, but 10 years in, now 11 years, we’re at capacity in almost every measure,” Johnson repeated last week.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent official estimates showed that Fayetteville added over 1,600 residents from 2013 to 2014, more than any other city in Arkansas. It was the third straight year Fayetteville had led the state in population growth estimates.

Johnson said study rooms are typically booked full-time and the shelves are full.

But the kind of facility Johnson envisions isn’t just one that will provide more room for books.

A shift in focus

“There’s been a shift in focus here,” Johnson said. “We’re transitioning to a facility that is designed to connect people to knowledge in many other ways.”

Johnson said audiences of up to 900 people at a time have flocked to the library in recent months to learn from guest speakers, which has led to certain sections that must be closed or rearranged in order to accompany such large crowds.

With guests like Bob Woodward, Levar Burton, and Dave Barry making recent appearances at the library, Johnson said the community has come to expect a routine schedule of high-profile speakers.

“Nowadays,” he said, “It’s as much about what we’re doing for the community as it is what we have for them.”

Library officials hope to utilize the City Hospital property across the street as part of the planned expansion. The library has been working to finalize its purchase of the land from Washington Regional Medical Center, but that deal has been held up in court since descendants of the donors of the land first challenged the ownership in the Arkansas Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court. An appeal that would complete the $2 million sale has twice passed the courts, but the deal could remain tied up if the challengers continue their battle.

» Click to enlarge map

Map: Flyer staff

Specific details of the improvements are expected to be discussed during public meetings later this year, but tentative expansion plans would add about 80,000 square feet to the library’s campus, including a new two-level southern wing and an open-air plaza for concerts and community events on the hospital land. Officials said a smaller plan could be utilized if the land deal falls through.

Rice said the library has cut about $400,000 from its operating budget in the last two years to try and keep up with the growing population. That’s why the extra 1.5 mills for operating costs would continue past the construction payoff.

“The use of the library is what’s driving this train,” Rice told aldermen on Tuesday. “We have the best library in the United States and we want to keep it that way.”

Aldermen are scheduled to discuss the possibility of the special election at the next regular City Council meeting on May 17.

» Read more about the library’s master plan for expansion