A split Newport Beach City Council pushed ahead with plans for a new lecture hall at the central library next to city hall, authorizing a $10 million boost to the project’s budget.
Some council members raised concerns of overspending on the project, saying it would start eating the city’s rainy day money.
Others said the city has the extra cash to fund the project and it should be directed back into the community.
While the lecture hall’s budget started at $8 million in 2019 and increased in 2021 to $13 million.
It’s now set to cost over $23 million, an increase that mostly came from a jump in construction costs according to a November city staff presentation.
The lecture hall is expected to hold up to 299 people, meaning each seat would cost over $78,000, or nearly $2,400 a square foot.
The city is on the hook for half of the $23 million, with the other half coming from the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation, which agreed to partner with the city when the project first was discussed back in 2019.
Jerold Kappel, CEO of the foundation, said there’s been a lot of demand for the project from organizations like the Newport Beach Film Festival, the Balboa Bay Club, the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Visit Newport Beach, the city’s tourism bureau.
“There’s just limited space,” Kappel said in a Monday interview, referring to the library’s existing 200 seat presentation space. “People are going elsewhere for business meetings and association meetings. There’s just not the space.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, multiple city council members claimed the lecture hall could become a new cultural icon in the city and serve as a way to generate new revenue, with Councilman Noah Blom pointing out the city had the cash on hand to fund the project’s creation.
“We’re stewards of spending the money, not hoarding the money,” Blom said. “If you have extra money, you have to put it back into the business – this is the business of what we do.”
But other council members brought up concerns it could eat up the city’s budget surplus and a large chunk of their budget for new infrastructure, with Mayor Will O’Neill bringing up repeated questions on the financial future of the project.
“We go through a budget process every year. We know a dollar spent in one area is a dollar not spent in another area,” O’Neill said. “This will deplete the capital reserves in the next few years.”
The city council voted 4-3, with O’Neill and Councilmembers Joe Stapleton and Lauren Kleiman casting the dissenting votes.
While the library foundation is currently over $4 million short on their half of the funding, Kappel said they’d be able to raise the funds and pay back the city within the next two years.
Jason Al-Imam, the city’s treasurer, said the project would be paid out of the city’s reserve for upgrading and replacing old buildings, which he said would still have nearly $30 million in it by the end of the lecture hall’s construction.
“Temporarily we’ll have to cover the full appropriation to fund the project,” Al-Imam said in an interview. “As they repay their full obligation, we’ll be able to replenish our reserves.”
O’Neill said the money would be better used on raises for city staff, police and firefighters, or on city parks, listing a series of different options for where the money could go and highlighting how the majority of emails the city council received were against the project.
“At some point, project costs get too large to allow other priorities to be forfeited,” O’Neill said. “When many of our residents found out about this project for the first time last week, we got an outpouring of negative reaction.”
But the council majority insisted it’s a financially stable decision.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of this project if it meant we’d somehow jeopardize our reserves or would be required to borrow,” said Councilwoman Robyn Grant. “We have sufficient money and reserves and revenues to take care of all these ambitious objectives and build this lecture hall. There isn’t a this or that here.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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2024-01-11 13:58:00 , Voice of OC