Library Board: Invest in Current Building?

Also, a look at Ann Arbor in the Ice Age, via the Library Lot

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Sept. 20, 2010): A request to replace an aging chiller – the piece of equipment that acts as an air-conditioner for the downtown library – led to a broader discussion among library board members on Monday night about how much they should invest in a building that not long ago they planned to demolish.

Ann Arbor District Library building at Fifth & William

The Ann Arbor District Library building, on the northeast corner of Fifth & William. (Photos by the writer.)

They ultimately approved replacing the chiller for $108,555 – but also agreed to plan a retreat where they’ll discuss the issue of the downtown building in depth. The retreat will be scheduled sometime after the Nov. 2 election, when seven candidates will vie for four seats. In addition to the four incumbents running – Jan Barney Newman, Barbara Murphy, Carola Stearns and Ed Surovell – two other candidates attended Monday’s meeting in the audience: Vivienne Armentrout and Lyn Powrie Davidge. Nancy Kaplan is also running for a board seat.

The board heard a report that employee benefits are over budget, primarily due to increased health insurance costs. The administration has addressed that issue by changing the insurance options for its non-union employees, a move that’s expected to bring the expense back to its budgeted amount by the end of the fiscal year.

Also during Monday’s meeting, the board and staff heard a presentation by Stearns, a geologist, who described the effects of glaciers on this region’s topography, in part by looking at the layers of earth exposed during excavation for the underground parking garage being built adjacent to the downtown library building.

Chiller Replacement: How Much to Invest?

On the agenda was a request to either repair or replace one of two chillers used to cool the downtown library building at the corner of Fifth and William. The chillers were installed in 1989, with an expected lifespan of 20-30 years. A condenser coil on one of the chillers was damaged this summer, causing the loss of refrigerant. AADL director Josie Parker reported that most of the time, the chiller wasn’t fully operational and the building got “a little clammy.” Because replacing the chiller in the summer would mean closing the building – it would be too hot for staff and patrons – the best time to replace it is in the fall or winter months.

The board was asked to consider four options: 1) repairing the chiller at an estimated cost of roughly $64,000; 2) replacing it with a new Trane chiller for $112,600; 3) replacing it with a new McQuay chiller for $108,555; or 4) do nothing. The administration recommended replacement with the less expensive McQuay chiller.

Prue Rosenthal asked whether it made sense to wait until next year to replace it, so that the warranty would be activated closer to the time when they’re actually ready to use the equipment. Ken Nieman – associate director of finance, HR and operations – said that if they ordered the new chiller now, it likely wouldn’t be installed until December. It would be possible to wait and install it in February or March, he said, but they’d need to get new bids if they waited. Another factor: The company that’s building the underground parking structure next to the downtown library currently has a crane on site that the library could use to unload the chiller, Nieman said. Otherwise, the library would need to rent a crane – a cost not included in the bid.

Carola Stearns asked for the rationale to buy a new one, rather than replace renovate it, given the cost as well as the uncertain plans for the downtown building. [The board and administration had planned to construct a new building on that site, but had called off plans to do that in late 2008, citing concerns about the economy. The topic has emerged repeatedly in board discussions since then, and was a focus of the board's February 2010 working session to develop its strategic plan for July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2015.]

At Monday’s meeting, Parker responded to Stearns by saying they’d taken a conservative approach in recommending replacement. Nieman pointed out that there are no current plans to do anything with the downtown building. During the summer, he said, the building’s pumps were running 24/7 to circulate cold water as an alternative to the crippled chiller – that’s causing wear-and-tear on the pumps, too. The chilled water is circulated through the building’s air-handling systems. Board member Jan Barney Newman noted that the board had recently approved replacing two of the building’s five air-handlers as well.

Stearns said it was clear that they needed to replace the chiller and keep the library open. But it’s uncomfortable, she said, because they were being asked to spend over $100,000 that hadn’t been budgeted for equipment, and they’re not taking into consideration the broader context of the building’s future. The building won’t likely be around another 20-30 years, she noted. At some point, the board needs to look at how much they’ve already spent, how much more they’ll likely need to spend, and when they should put the brakes on investing more in the current building.

Board chair Rebecca Head said she understood Stearns’ perspective, but they couldn’t predict the future. It would be hard to identify a specific amount, she said, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it.”

Stearns then asked where the chillers would be located when Library Lane opens. The new east/west sidestreet will be located directly north of the library, between the library and the parking structure. The equipment will likely stay were it is, on that north side of the building, Nieman said. The roof isn’t structurally designed to handle the weight, and if they move the chillers to the parking lot on the east side, they’d also have to reroute plumbing. Parker added that if the chillers are kept at their current location, the library still has the option of adding a door on the north side, opening out onto Library Lane.

Ed Surovell weighed in, saying he agreed with the decision to replace the chiller. Repair was a gamble, he said, especially on an old piece of equipment. The bigger question is: How much longer do they continue to invest in the building?

Rosenthal noted that at some point, given the current economic conditions, they might have to consider renovating the building instead of replacing it with a new structure, as they had previously planned. She acknowledged that although they had rejected the idea of renovation, they might need to rethink that now.

Head suggested focusing their board retreat on this issue, and proposed holding the retreat after the Nov. 2 election. She said it made more sense to wait until then – presumably so that potential new board members could participate.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to replace the broken chiller with a new McQuay chiller, to be installed by Pace Mechanical at a cost of $108,555. Margaret Leary had left the meeting early and was not present for the vote. The board subsequently approved transferring $110,000 from the library’s fund balance to the capital outlays budget, to cover the cost of the project.

Changing Legal Counsel

AADL director Josie Parker explained that the law firm Dykema handled all the library’s legal matters except for those related to real estate, which were handled by Butzel Long. There was an attorney change at Butzel, and she said it seemed like an appropriate time to shift the real estate work back to Dykema.

Ed Surovell said he had no prejudice against Butzel or Dykema, but “I have a strong preference for firms that are headquartered here, of which there a number.” He noted that the “horse was out of the barn” and it wasn’t worth holding up the vote, but he hoped that in the future they could take that into consideration. Pointing out that he had very good friends at both law firms, Surovell said, nonetheless they are “carpetbaggers.”

Outcome: The board unanimously approved changing its legal counsel for real estate matters from Butzel Long to Dykema.

Finance Report

Ken Nieman, associate director of finance, HR and operations, gave the finance report, which looked at the months of July and August. The reports to the board typically cover the previous month, but there was no meeting held in August.

At the end of August, the library had a positive fund balance of $7.6 million, Nieman said. He noted that six items are over budget through August, but are expected to fall back in line later in the year. The largest item over budget relates to employee benefits, and reflect an increase in health insurance costs that took effect July 1. [The budgeted amount of $250,000 has been exceeded by nearly $17,000.] Nieman said they are implementing cost-saving measures that are expected to address this issue by the second half of the fiscal year.

Later in the meeting, board chair Rebecca Head reported that the board’s executive committee – consisting of Head, Jan Barney Newman and Prue Rosenthal – had discussed the issue of health insurance costs, and confirmed with Parker that Parker, as director, had the authority to offer AADL’s non-union employees alternative health insurance plans aimed at cutting costs for the library. Head said all three plans that were offered provide good coverage, and one of the plans is at no cost to employees. No additional details were provided.

AADL employs 250 people, including 100 full-time benefited workers. Of those full-time workers, 52 are represented by unions.

Director’s Report

Josie Parker provided both a written and verbal director’s report to the board. She noted that more than 9,000 people participated in AADL’s summer reading program, including 2,771 adults – numbers that are “very good,” she said. Of the total participants, 52% reported that they’d finished the program, meaning that they read the recommended books. Probably more people completed it but didn’t report back, Parker said, but even 52% is a good result.

Parker reminded the board that she represents the library on a countywide cyber-citizen task force that’s focused on how to use the Internet in a safe, productive way. It’s a coalition spearheaded by Washtenaw County commissioner Kristin Judge that includes representatives from law enforcement, the courts, education, local government and nonprofits. A kick-off breakfast will be held Oct. 6 from 8-10 a.m. at Washtenaw Community College’s Morris Lawrence Building, and Parker encouraged board members to attend. She noted that it’s very relevant to the library’s work, given that the library provides Internet access to its patrons.

Parker also reported that she recently attended a Success by Six legislative breakfast – the library is involved in that effort. She posed a question to the board that attendees at the breakfast had been asked: When you think of the most common age for expulsion, what comes to mind? One board member suggested eighth grade. In fact, for private schools, kindergarten has the highest expulsion rate, Parker said. Success by Six trains daycare providers to help parents deal with behavioral problems – like biting – that lead to expulsion. It’s an interesting conversation to have about school readiness, Parker said. It’s not about counting to 10 or learning your colors – it’s about learning the behavior to stay in school. “This is something I care a great deal about,” she said.

Board member Barbara Murphy had a question about an item in Parker’s written report, which mentioned that the library now provides web hosting services for Washtenaw Literacy, and that the Huron Valley Community Network has relocated its computer server to AADL’s datacenter. Murphy said she supported these partnerships, but wondered how they were selected.

Parker said that the nonprofit and AADL must have parallel or complementary missions, and that the library doesn’t provide financial support or content development. AADL doesn’t advertise this service, she said, and it typically takes a long time to work out terms of the partnership, depending on how much the nonprofit needs or wants from AADL.

Resolutions of Thanks

The library board unanimously passed resolutions of thanks for the service of two employees, both named Janet Smith, who recently retired.

Janet P. Smith worked for the library since 1983, most recently serving as manager of access, user services and collections. In her director’s report, Josie Parker stated that Smith’s interest in local history and geneology led to the library offering classes on computer searching as well as enhancements to the library’s special collections. “Janet will be missed by her colleagues for her wit and wisdom, both always given with respect and humor,” Parker wrote, “and offered in abundance.”

Janet A. Smith joined AADL in 1987, and worked in bindery services. “To say that she personally touched almost every item that was purchased by the Library at some point or other over two decades would not be an exaggeration,” Parker wrote. “Her quiet smile, competence and work ethic were appreciated by her colleagues, and will be missed by us all.”

Carola Stearns

Carola Stearns.

Ann Arbor Under Ice

At the end of the meeting, board member Carola Stearns gave a presentation on the impact of glacial formations in the Ann Arbor area. A geologist, Stearns had taken advantage of the deep excavation in the city-owned Library Lot, located directly north of the downtown library building, to explore the exposed strata. An underground parking structure is being built on that site.

Most of her presentation focused a broader overview of glacial activity in North America and in the Ann Arbor region, where three “end moraines” – the linear pile-up of debris and sediment at the end of a glacier – define the local topography. The three moraines running through Ann Arbor are the Fort Wayne Moraine, the Outer Defiance Moraine and the Inner Defiance Moraine.

In the last “glacial maximum,” the Ann Arbor area had been totally covered by the Laurentide ice sheet, which stretched down into Ohio. The glacial sediment from that period is 100-200 feet deep here.

In the Library Lot pit itself, Stearns said she found nothing surprising or interesting – just 55 feet of coarse, well-bedded, well-sorted sand and gravel. She had hoped for a big tree stump or something that would provide material that could be dated.

Stearns mentioned that she’s spent time in Killians Killins gravel pit, located near Wagner and Liberty, where about 100 feet of gravel and sand is exposed. Ed Surovell described Killins as a “remarkable sight.”

Stearns received a round of applause after her presentation.

Present: Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Prue Rosenthal, Carola Stearns, Ed Surovell. Also: Josie Parker, AADL director.

Next meeting: Regular board meetings are typically held on the third Monday of the month, with the public portion of the meeting starting at 7 p.m. in the library’s fourth floor board room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. The board’s next regular meeting is on Monday, Oct. 18, 2010. [confirm date]


  1. By Prue Rosenthal
    September 21, 2010 at 3:54 pm | permalink

    In her excellent report Mary made one mistake concerning the problem of the AADL chillers. Quote “Carola Stearns asked for the rationale to buy a new one, rather than replace it, given the cost as well as the uncertain plans for the downtown building. ” she asked about RENOVATION vs. replacement.
    Great report otherwise. Prue Rosenthal

  2. By Ann
    September 21, 2010 at 11:56 pm | permalink

    Funny the library always feels colder than it needs to be. Even colder than might be considered reasonable 20 years ago.

  3. By Jane
    September 22, 2010 at 11:27 am | permalink

    @Ann I’m not sure where you spend time at the Downtown library but “cold” is the last word I would ever use to describe anyplace in that building. Branches – perhaps, but not the downtown library. If you have ever attended a program in the basement hot and sweltering is a better description.

  4. By David
    September 22, 2010 at 4:34 pm | permalink

    Delaying building replacement or relocation may be best in the long term. In the years to come, borrowing via e-reader will eventually become the norm. A future library will be able to concentrate more of its energy on unique media events and special editions of artistic merit rather than holding physical copies of hundreds of thousands of novels,biographies, and texts having ever changing popularity.

  5. By Rod Johnson
    September 22, 2010 at 6:10 pm | permalink

    As much as I hate to admit it, David has a good point. We’re at a point of rapid change in the nature of all media. This may not be the best time to commit a large amount of money 30 years out on something which might be obsolete or fundamentally different in 10. The new branches, as spectacular as they are as spaces, already feel a little bit superfluous.

  6. By David
    September 23, 2010 at 8:52 am | permalink

    I don’t think electronic media will ever supplant the tangible, printed book. They said the same thing about radio and television and it never happend.

    Certainly e-books have taken a nice chunk of the market, but it’s all evening out.

    There simply is no substitute for tangilbe media. And I’m not an old fart saying this LOL

    With that said, I believe the current library is insufficient and has been outdated for several years. Ann Arbor is a bastion of intellecutalism and should have a very nice, if not world class, library.

  7. By Rod Johnson
    September 23, 2010 at 10:48 am | permalink

    You may or may not be right, who knows? I hope you are, but publishers are certainly in a tizzy about whether they’ll survive. The point is, a new building is a substantial bet on things being a certain way, whatever you build, and at a time when there’s this much uncertainty, well, to me it makes sense to wait a bit and see if things settle out.

    (Surely I’m not the only person to have gone in the Pittsfield or Mallett’s Creek branches and thought “But where are all the books?”)

  8. By Ann
    September 23, 2010 at 11:34 am | permalink

    The next generations are not growing up with the quaint feelings of ‘there’s just something about paper’ that we have. They have no nostalgia to tell them that tangible media is better in some unquantifiable way.

    Besides, if you use digital downloads, you don’t have to touch the sticky library books. Ew!

  9. September 23, 2010 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    The capital outlay budget was reduced from $253,343 last year to $190,000 this year. Yet the board has known for at least three years that the HVAC system was going to require some outlay beyond the AHU that was replaced last year (it’s in the Providence report). So why was this expenditure not budgeted, and why is Stearns uncomfortable with it?

    By the way, a 110,000 square foot building is going to require something around $200,000 a year in maintenance costs. The chiller failure is not evidence that the building is “falling down.” It’s a regular maintenance expense.

  10. By Jack F.
    September 24, 2010 at 9:54 am | permalink

    It’s more of the Ann Arbor public body philosophy of ‘Oh We Have Money Let’s Spend It NOW’ mentality. Retrofiting and remodeling the current building is what should be done and if we have money to build new building after several years then we need to return some of those dollars to the public.