WORTHINGTON — Nobles County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to commit $8.5 million to a collaborative W.E.L.L. (Welcome, Education, Library and Livability) facility. The action comes two weeks after the county’s Library Board reversed its decision and voted 3-2 to withdraw support for the building project.
With a stack of documents within reach, commissioner and board chairman Matt Widboom said he researched the history of the library board. Noting there are two different types of boards — governing and advisory — he said the local library board is of the latter variety based solely on its apparent role.
Therefore, the library board’s vote was merely a suggestion. Widboom said it was up to the leaders at the table to decide the direction for the W.E.L.L.
“I’m not in favor of pulling out,” said Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. “I think it’s a great project for all the right reasons. I don’t care to see it dying on the vine. I think we need to look at the whole picture and consider the savings to our constituents (by collaborating).”
Commissioner Justin Ahlers took a different stance. After consistently voting against anything that would result in a new library, Ahlers said the library board’s stance on the W.E.L.L. jeopardizes the chance for getting state funding. He doesn’t want to see the county spend more money on design work on a project he said can’t proceed without state monies.
County Administrator Tom Johnson said $30 million to $32 million might be a reasonable cost for the entire project. With $1.5 million offered from the city of Worthington and $12.5 million committed by ISD 518, that means $14 million is already available. With $8 million discussed as an idea for the county’s commitment, and an anticipated fund drive by the Friends of the Library, there would still be a shortage of roughly $9 million.
“Where is the other money going to come from?” Ahlers asked, pointing out the $400,000 authorized earlier in the meeting for a camera system at the Prairie Justice Center and a potential levy increase of 4.99% for 2020.
“The moral of the story here is we cannot afford this,” Ahlers said.
Widboom then took the opportunity to walk through the history of the library and its quest for space that dates back more than a decade.
“Do we want to be part of the timeline the local paper has — that another opportunity was kicked down the road?” he asked.
Widboom said it was the county board’s responsibility to look beyond the thoughts and wishes of a couple and, instead, at the greater good for the county.
“It’s about the opportunity. We’ve been waiting for an opportunity. Rarely do the stars align, and this has not been perfect,” he said.
Widboom said it takes leaders to step forward and take a risk, saying, “Now is the time to move forward and put an end to the timeline.”
With the city and school district committing funds to the project and both the House and Senate bonding committees visiting Worthington to hear firsthand about the concept of the W.E.L.L., Widboom said never before has the county had the potential to get state money to build a library project.
“How many more stars do we want to be set up right in front of us?” he asked.
Library Board chairwoman Kathy Craun agreed that now is an opportune time to proceed with a library project. She offered an explanation about the library’s decision to revote earlier this month, saying three new pieces of information had come forward since the initial vote was taken in late July. That new information included a library board member’s change of heart on her initial vote; a letter from library staff stating they did not support the project on the Second Avenue site; and the resignation of library director Marjorie Ferguson, whose primary reason for leaving was because she could not support a new library on contaminated soil adjacent to railroad tracks.
Craun said communication with county commissioners has been sporadic and misunderstood.
“The reality is, we really have no say in the financial commitment you make, nor the financial means in which you support the library or not,” Craun said. “What we have asked is that you support the decision that was made. The decision is yours, and we will respect whatever decision you make.”
She did ask that the board abide by the library’s guiding document if the W.E.L.L. project moves forward.
Widboom said he understands the obvious concerns with the site, but that’s why professionals are hired.
“The things we can’t resolve are personal concerns … that take confidence or trust in the process,” he said.
ISD 518 Administrator John Landgaard, in approaching the board, said the project is going to take some “bold leadership and commitment by all entities” to make it work.
“This is an opportunity that’s once in a lifetime and goes far beyond Nobles County,” Landgaard said. “I really challenge you folks to be courageous and strong leaders and really support this project.”
Following limited discussion about staying at its present site in the War Memorial Building and the space and parking constraints there, Commissioner Gene Metz made a motion to contribute $8.5 million toward the W.E.L.L. project. The motion ultimately passed 4-1 on a roll call vote, with Metz, Widboom, Demuth Jr. and Donald Linssen in support and Ahlers opposed.