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Carnegie Library seeking RAD aid: $15 million bond issue

Friday, September 28, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Allegheny Regional Asset District has already approved long-term bond issues to pay for the city's baseball and football stadiums, the new convention center and improvements to Mellon Arena.

Now the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh would like the district to finance a $15 million, 25-year bond issue to pay for wide-ranging physical improvements to five of its branches around the city.

Library Director Herb Elish is offering the asset district's board a deal, which he hopes will persuade it to approve the bond issue.

In order to provide the necessary bond-repayment funding, he's willing to give up $1 million a year (for the next 25 years) from the library's requested $15.6 million operating budget.

He said the library has already reduced operational costs by increasing efficiency with security, custodial services and other staffing issues. He said he thinks he can tighten his belt even further, such as not filling positions that become vacant, to free up the money needed for the bond issue.

On Monday, the seven-member RAD board will release its preliminary proposed budget for 2002. The spending package is expected to be between $75 million and $76 million, or roughly the same as the $75.6 million in spending for 2001. Most of RAD's money is generated by the county's 1 percent sales tax, whose revenues have been stagnant due to the nation's current economic slowdown.

In an interview yesterday, Elish said the bond issue is needed to pay for necessary improvements to branch libraries, which average 79 years old.

Many of the 18 Carnegie Library branches around the city have aging heating systems; five don't have air conditioning; many need new windows; many still aren't fully accessible to the disabled; and some have furniture that has been in use for decades.

To date, the asset district board has approved bond issues costing $13.4 million a year for 30 years to pay for Plan B -- building the two stadiums and the convention center -- and a 10-year bond issue of $3.2 million a year for arena improvements.

RAD board Chairman Dan Griffin said yesterday, "I'm not crazy about bonding in general. It's not something we would necessarily do across the board, but the library could be an exception."

He said he was impressed with the library's willingness to "carve the bond-issue money out of its operating funds."

It isn't known yet if the preliminary budget to be released Monday will include the 25-year library bond issue.

But if the RAD board does agrees to it, the first branch that would be upgraded is the one on Brookline Boulevard in Brookline, Elish said. The basement, currently unfinished, would be remodeled so the library would have two usable floors, he said.

The current space used for community meetings would be remodeled, the children's room would be expanded and a computer training facility would be installed.

The other four branches that would be remodeled under the $15 million bond program haven't been decided on yet, Elish said. He wants to review architectural studies and discuss the matter with the affected neighborhoods.

A library spokeswoman, Peg McCormick Barron, said that in 2000, the main library and its branches had 2.2 million visitors, the most of any of the 100 groups in the county that receive RAD funding.

The library system circulated 2.6 million books, records and other items last year. About 30 percent of the registered library card-holders for the Carnegie Library live outside the city.

Ultimately, Barron said, because of its aging branches, the library system will need $76 million in capital improvements. The $15 million RAD bond issue would be a first installment on that.

Within the next year, she said, the Carnegie Library expects to begin a $25 million capital campaign.

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