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080715-dec-loc-libraryparkinglot

A section of the Decatur Public Library parking lot.

There are few activities reporters hate more than sitting outside of a closed session meeting, knowing important subjects are being discussed. That’s where I found myself often last year while covering the Decatur Public Library board. Later, as I learned all the moving parts of the plan being developed in those sessions, it made sense why they were talking so much.

I reported the details in November, the first time they were released publicly. Along with colleague Ryan Voyles, I followed the proposal’s progress through public forums, contract language and board meetings ever since. It felt like a journey, but the road took a hard turn Monday when the Decatur City Council informally rejected the plan as it existed to this point.

What happened? There’s a lot going on here. Bear with me.

The original plan was this: Library sells its building, 130 N. Franklin St., and annex to Decatur Public Building Commission. The building commission takes over all the maintenance needs, including the battle-scarred parking lot. The library rents all the space it currently uses from the building commission for $615,000 a year for 20 years; keeping the rent flat over time is how the building commission will end up paying $3.1 million for the building. The building commission also rents empty space to Macon County offices, which move out of their building at 141 S. Main St. They sell it to 101 Main Place LLC to turn into a residential development.

Two government bodies share one building instead of half-filling two, the library doesn’t have to worry about the roof caving in and the county building goes back on the tax rolls. Everybody’s happy, right? Well, no.

The deal was constructed with the blessing of former City Manager Ryan McCrady, who praised it at an H&R editorial board meeting in November. At the time, he said city staff didn’t think the council needed to approve the deal; council members were given updates and none expressed concerns. McCrady told us the city did have 2 ½ years left to pay on bonds previously issued for library renovations, and the library was listed as an asset on the city’s financial records. This is important, because that comes up later.

McCrady took the helm of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County in January. Shortly after new City Manager Tim Gleason assumed the position in March, he started asking questions. He then told the council that they needed to approve the proposal, and that he was concerned they were not aware of all the facts.

Gleason said the city owes $735,000 on those bonds McCrady mentioned, which were originally issued in 1998. Several council members said Monday they could not support a situation where they would pay debt on a building over which they have no control. Also, Gleason thinks it would hurt the city’s bond rating to lose the library as an asset on the books, where it is valued at $4.1 million.

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The city does not own the library building; the library board holds the title. It appears Gleason would like to change that. While he said he was not making a recommendation to the council Monday, his list of pros and cons for different scenarios reflected a clear winner: The option of the city purchasing the building did not have any cons. Further, Gleason thinks the city should be able to buy the building for $1, reasoning that otherwise, Decatur taxpayers would be buying it twice.

In entering negotiations with the parties, Gleason said he will look for “better opportunities” for the city. That could entail any number of scenarios.

Macon County Chairman Kevin Greenfield said last month that this is the county’s “one and only offer,” but Gleason told the council that the county will listen to him. Of course, if the county does not move, its building cannot become downtown residential space.

Library board President John Phillips told me he is committed to making the process open and, in that spirit, sent me an email he wrote to all the other board members. In it, Phillips recommended terminating the contract for sale to the building commission, since the council did not approve that deal.

“Purchase by anyone is possible if it provides for the library’s future and recognizes the monetary contribution of the many donors to the library in a manner satisfactory to the trustees and the city council with all discussions open to the public,” he wrote. That would seem to imply that $1 isn’t going to cut it, but we’ll see.

It’s important to note that city finance director Gregg Zientara joined the library board in July. Presumably, his presence should end any question of whether the city and library are communicating.

As time passes without resolution, the library is stuck with a parking lot full of cracks and craters; nobody is likely to fix that until they figure out who will own it. Temporary workers now perform some maintenance jobs, since some employees left in anticipation of their positions being eliminated as part of the original deal.

Before this is over, I won’t be surprised to find myself outside of a closed meeting or two. Again.

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Regional Editor

Regional editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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