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Mid-Continent Public Library plans to build a new branch in Independence despite tight budget

A brown sign sits among bushes and flowers. It reads "Mid-Continent Public Library John W. Ferguson Administrative Headquarters"
Savannah Hawley
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KCUR 89.3
Mid-Continent's board voted to build a new library in East Independence. The branch was promised to voters in 2016, but the board still needs to figure out how to pay for it.

Voters supported a tax increase in 2016 with the promise that the library would open a new branch — but now the library board is questioning how to finance the project.

After a contentious meeting, the Mid-Continent Public Library board voted to move forward with construction of a new branch in East Independence with nine members in favor and one abstention.

The branch was promised to voters in 2016 when they overwhelmingly approved Proposition L — an 8-cent increase on a tax levy that funds the library — in exchange for improved services and new branches.

Construction on the branch, which will be located off Little Blue Parkway, will start next year and is planned to be completed in 2024. Financing for the branch is still in limbo as the board tries to figure out how to pay for it since voting to reduce the tax levy — the library’s primary source of revenue — in September.

The library board would need an additional $13 million in its budget to cover its construction plans. Its costs have gone up since the original proposal six years ago.

“We have a social contract with the public to build East Independence,” said Brent Schondelmeyer, a board member from Independence who voted against the reduction of the levy. “The voluntary reduction of the levy doesn't remove us from that obligation. It just means that we're just going to have to work harder to figure out how to organize our resources to both build and operate East Independence.”

At the meeting, the board voted to accept a bid from contractor JE Dunn that would cap the construction cost at $6,550,000.

Schondelmeyer said that even though costs are high right now, building the branch will not get more affordable in the near future. The building proposal was previously reduced from 15,000 to 12,500 square feet to reduce overall construction costs.

“If we have an obligation to build it, we should build it at the time that's most advantageous to the cost,” Schondelmeyer said. “What part of our life is gonna cost less a year from now than it does today? Everybody will talk about the historic inflation — library world is not exempt from these things.”

MCPL has built two new service locations in the past decade: the Woodneath branch in Liberty, Missouri, and another in East Lee’s Summit. Jackson County, which gives the most revenue to and has the highest population in the library district, voted 63.1% in favor of the tax increase under Proposition L in 2016. Schondelmeyer believes that increase saved the library system.

A graph showing price increases due to construction delays
Mid-Continent Public Library
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A graph provided by JE Dunn, the contractor for the new library, shows the likely cost increase if the project were delayed.

Financing the new library

At the meeting, Schondelmeyer said other trustees have asked if the money needed for the new East Independence branch could be fundraised instead of paid for by the library system. The Woodneath branch's historic home preservation was paid for through philanthropic donations, but Schondelmeyer said they are not comparable.

“East Independence is an entirely different situation,” Schondelmeyer said. “It would be nearly impossible to raise more than double the cost of the Woodneath project — and frankly what we would raise in any one year would be matched or outstripped by the impact on inflation on the entire project.’”

The library board can’t reverse the decrease of more than 2 cents from the levy until the 2024-2025 fiscal year. According to library staff, restoring the levy is one of the only ways to fund the new branch.

In a staff memo sent to the board Dec. 9, Wray and the senior leadership team detailed a nearly $8 million gap to cover unfinished projects, including the East Independence branch, a new branch in Riverside, a maintenance fund and other updates.

To close that gap, senior leadership recommended the board transfer $8 million from the library’s operating fund to the capital fund and restore the levy to its ceiling when next possible.

But at the meeting, Board Member Gordon Cook said he believed that the deficit was actually nearly $13 million, based on numbers from the library’s finance committee.

Board member Yummy Pandolfi of Platte County questioned the increased cost of the new library branch and said the board was kept in the dark throughout the process.

“At every meeting we are shown that we are right on track, we have enough money for East Independence,” Pandolfi said. “If we would have heard this even when we were dealing with the budget, that would have made sense. Now you’re saying we’re $13 million short, yet (at) the Building Committee meetings we were being told everything was on track.”

Cook, who also represents Platte County, suggested the board put the plan on hold until it could renegotiate and get an updated plan. He also suggested Sapp Design Architects and JE Dunn, the architects and construction team in charge of the project, need to evaluate the proposal, eliminate any inflated prices and donate money to keep the branch under budget.

But Brad Mckenzie, Kansas City office director at Sapp Design Architects, challenged the board’s accusation that the design team acted nefariously. The guaranteed maximum bid approved on Tuesday was over the original projection due to extreme inflation. He said the library should prefer a quality design over an on-budget building that doesn’t serve its population well.

“The only way we could cut cost is if we cut scope or if we went back to a building that was designed like some of the older projects were — a rectangular brick box with a couple of punched openings and lay-in ceilings,” Mckenzie said at the meeting. “If you look at the cost of the buildings that we have been doing and compare them to other libraries that have been done at the same time in the community, you guys have actually been getting a pretty good deal.”

Michelle Wycoff, a board member representing Clay County, said the discrepancies between the staff report and Cook’s calculation of the actual deficit necessitated an audit of the library finances.

“I think we owe it to the taxpayers to prove how the money’s been spent,” Wycoff said. “If staff won’t do it when we’ve asked, then I say we call the state auditor.”

Before “reluctantly” voting yes, Cook said the board will need to make changes to pay for the branch.

“Some things we do in the next 12 months this board may find very distasteful and the public might find objectionable,” he said. “We have to get this under control.”

A rendering of the new library shows a window wall and a wood-grain building
Emily Becker
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Mid-Continent Public Library
The new East Independence branch will be located off Little Blue Parkway just south of I-70. Interim CEO Susan Wray says its location will improve access for the growing community in that part of the city.

Providing access for a booming area of Independence

Independence’s population has drastically increased in the southeastern part of the city where the new library would be located.

In a letter to the library, Independence Mayor Rory Rowland urged the board to approve the branch. He said the city's growth and the promises made as part of the 2016 vote necessitates the construction of the new branch.

“I am writing today as both the Mayor of Independence and as a MCPL taxpayer,” Rowland said in the letter. “As a taxpayer and frequent voter, I hope the Board chooses to honor the will of the 62.3% of voters who approved Proposition L.”

More than 800 apartment units and 245 single-family units have been built in Independence since 2020, primarily in the southeastern area. One new residential neighborhood, New Town at Harmony, is proposed to have up to 600 housing units on 130 acres in East Independence.

This year, the city approved a development plan for Eastgate Commerce Center, which encompasses more than 1,200 acres and is projected to create over 5,000 jobs. Much of that new development sits near the location of the proposed branch.

“There are about 49,000 households in Independence,” Rowland said in the letter. “Of these, some 8,200 (17%) do not have access to broadband internet and 4,700 (10%) do not have a computer. For these residents, the library is a lifeline to education attainment, career advancement, and other critical needs.”

Susan Wray, the MCPL’s interim library director and CEO, said the new branch is about providing access to more people.

“The closer the library, the more likely you are to use it,” Wray said. “You're not having to go out of the way. You are not making plans trying to figure out how to get there and when to get there.”

Dan Purdom, a Liberty resident who spoke in favor of the new branch at the meeting, said a nearby library is vital for people like his mom, who recently had a stroke.

“My mother lives right off 24 Highway in East Independence,” Purdom said. “She had a stroke this past year, her world’s gotten a little smaller. But the library is really important to her.”

Corrected: December 14, 2022 at 4:47 PM CST
A previous version of this story misstated how fundraising was used for the Woodneath library. It was used for historic home preservation. A previous version of this story also incorrectly attributed a quote by Michelle Wycoff to another member of the library board.
When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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