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Editorial: Bonding with RAD / Carnegie libraries deserve help with renovation

Saturday, September 29, 2001

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has a good deal for the Allegheny Regional Asset District and the library-going public. To make necessary physical improvements to five of its 18 branches around the city, it is asking the RAD board to consider floating a $15 million, 25-year bond issue.

The library system needs help to renovate its older buildings, many of which have outdated heating units, no air conditioning, drafty windows, poor access for the disabled and worn-out furniture. The average age of the branches is a creaky 79 years.

Such a bond issue won't solve all of the libraries' plant problems, estimated to cost about $76 million. But Herb Elish, the system's director, believes the RAD money would be a big step in the right direction. Simultaneously, the library is also rolling out a major capital fund drive to leverage private dollars for other improvements.

With 2.2 million visitors last year, the Carnegie Library system drew more patrons than any other RAD-funds recipient. Such widespread use buttresses the case for keeping the libraries sound. But the system is willing to do more to make the bond issue palatable: it has offered to forgo roughly $1 million a year, for the next 25 years, from its RAD appropriation ($15.6 million has been requested for next year) in order to pay for the bond issue and its debt service.

That almost makes the bond proposal a wash.

Understandably, some RAD board members are reluctant to add more bond issues to the Regional Asset District's obligations. It already is paying $13.4 million a year (for 30 years) toward the two stadiums and new convention center, and, before that, it made a 10-year commitment of an annual $3.2 million for improvements to Mellon Arena.

But none of these outlays would have been approved if the RAD fund, fueled by Allegheny County's one-cent sales tax, were not robust. And the Post-Gazette would not back the library's bond issue if the fund's health were otherwise.

As libraries adapt to society's needs in the 21st century, they are not only repositories of books and printed resources, but also high-tech data search sites, sometimes for patrons who have no computer of their own. In addition, libraries, particularly in cities, have become community centers with special programs for children and senior citizens.

Though it's possible that the RAD board's preliminary budget for 2002, to be released on Monday, may not contain Carnegie Library's bond-issue request, there's time to work it into the final plan. We hope the board gives the proposal a serious look.

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