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Guelph City Council endorses new $67 million library

Ward 6 councillor Dominique O'Rourke changes her mind after hearing from staff and fellow councillors to swing the vote
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Guelph Public Library supporters sit in the gallery at Monday night's special council meeting. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday

The changed mind of Ward 6 councillor Dominique O'Rourke was the difference as Guelph City Council endorsed a new $67 million library Monday night.

O'Rourke appeared dead set against the staff recommendation of a $67 million library early in the five hour meeting, but during the course of the discussion, staff answers and impassioned debate, said she changed her mind.

As a result, a motion to reduce the price to $50 million failed 7-6.

The $67 million price tag was endorsed by a vote of 9-4 (For; Dominique O'Rourke, Cathy Downer, Leanne Piper, Mike Salisbury, Phil Allt, June Hofland, James Gordon, Christine Billings, Rodrigo Goller; Against: Mark MacKinnon, Cam Guthrie, Bob Bell, Dan Gibson).

An earlier move by MacKinnon to reduce the endorsed cost to $50 million failed by a 7-6 vote  (For; Mark MacKinnon, Cam Guthrie, Bob Bell, Dan Gibson, Christine Billings, Rodrigo Goller; Against: Dominique O'Rourke, Cathy Downer, Leanne Piper, Mike Salisbury, Phil Allt, June Hofland, James Gordon).

The vote was an endorsement of the recommended cost and staff will now begin detailed design. Final decision comes during next month's budget deliberations.

"I was comfortable with the answers staff had to the questions I had," said O'Rourke, admitting she switched sides during the course of the five-hour special meeting of council.

She added that staff convinced her the city could handle the debt load and that there were factors that could eventually reduce the cost.

Ealier in the evening O'Rourke said "some people thought we were going to breeze in here and make a $67 million dollar decision without all the information and not even blink, and that's not going to happen."

The price tag includes $44 million in city debt. It will also result in a property tax levy that will increase property taxes 0.86 per cent gradually over three years, but which will then be in place for 20 years. There would likely be a similar increase in operating expenses once it's built.

The price does include everything from furniture to computers, or as library CEO Steve Kraft put it, "all the fixin's."

The city will be applying for a federal grant of up to $36.6 million for the project, but it won't be known until the new year if they get that grant.

City treasurer Tara Baker laid out the financials of the project, adding that staff wants to make sure council "are comfortable with the tax impact in a worse-case scenario."

Council originally supported an 88,000 square-foot building with a price tag of $50 million back in 2018.

Longtime councillor Downer and Gordon led the charge in advocating for the library Monday, both making long and impassioned please for the bigger library.

Gordon, council's representative on the library board, made an impassioned plea for a $67 million endorsement by council. He called it a "legacy" project of the city that was wanted and needed by the public.

Downer said "this project has been required to jump through hoops that no other city project ever has" and added that some councillors are against this project no matter what, despite the need being shown time and time again.

Piper said "we owe it to the community" to approve staff's recommendation.

"Any big, bold decision comes with a risk," Piper said.

Guthrie had been hoping for a six-to-eight week "moment"  before a final decision so council could gather more information.

"My comfort level is still not there at $67 million," Guthrie said. "I can tell you, I don't think the public will is really there for a $67 million library.

"I cannot — cannot — support $67 million. That's astronomical," Guthrie said.

Bell said moving forward without knowing if they are getting a federal grant is "putting a cart before the horse."

"Without knowing that we have federal money, then I'm not on board with a project of this magnitude," Bell said.

"Why are we dealing with this ask in isolation of the budget?" Billings asked.

"Why can't a $50 million library for Guelph be absolutely amazing?" MacKinnon asked.

The meeting saw a near-capacity crowd in the gallery and 13 delegates address council.

Library board chair Lisa Maslove told council that library use goes up when new libraries are built, citing statistics from several southern Ontario municipalities that saw big jumps.

"This project is truly unique. It will create economc and social returns for decades to come," Maslove said.

Judy Noonan, a person with mobility challenges, called the Guelph Public Library "a magical place full of hidden treasures."

"It is the only place that is an excellent resource for entertainment and knowledge and it is completely free," Noonan said.

Susan Watson said now is not the time to defer the project and championed for the recommended price tag and size.

"Square footage needs have been proven time and time again," Watson said.

Jonathan Webb said the library is an investment, not an expense.

"The appropriate steps have been taken. To hesitate now is a disservice to citizens, stakeholders, city staff and the city of guelph," Webb said.

Morgan Hannah said this isn't just about a library, it's about an engine that will help drive economic resurgence in the downtown core.

She called any delay in the process "fruitless, because it's only going to increase our costs."

Marty Williams, head of the Downtown Guelph Business Association, called for 500 parking spots on site, not the 280 being recommended.

"This decision is about moving forward and making a commitment to our citizens and our city," Williams said, adding that the city needs to make the commitment then go looking for alternative sources of funding.

"We need to find a way to build it," Williams said. "The risk a delay represents is much too high ... have some courage."

Duncan MacKenzie said the main library keeps getting bumped down the list of priorities and it's time to end that.

Anne Gajerski-Cauley said when the city signs on for this project, other private sector groups will also sign on.

"Be on the right side of history this time," Gajerski-Cauley said.