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Lawmakers ride to rescue of Cornelius library project


Residents won't have to vote on $2.4 million library bond in May

In a surprise move, state lawmakers funded the Cornelius library expansion last week, meaning residents won’t need to vote on a bond measure in May.

The $2.4 million in state funds emerged amidst the frenzy of end-of-session deals in Salem that included high-profile negotiations on a land-use bill affecting Cornelius and other Washington County cities.

It was during the land-use talks that Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin and City Manager Rob Drake brought up the Cornelius library proposal. Drake says they mentioned the city’s need for a new library to state Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem), who emerged as the godfather of the “grand bargain” aimed at resolving longstanding battles over urban and rural reserves.

“The legislature works in mysterious ways,” Drake said, declining to make any definitive connection between the library and land use, other than to say that last Thursday, March 6, “we got exactly what we asked for.”

House Bill 5201 — which is unconnected to House Bill 4078, the land-use bill — contained $2.4 million for Cornelius’s library expansion with $51,194 extra thrown in, for “initial bonding costs,” Drake speculated.

The expansion was one of many community projects across the state funded through the bill, from $1.5 million in general funds for a stormwater project in Stayton to $38.5 million for a cancer center at Oregon Health Sciences University.

“It’s utterly amazing. Lightning can strike in a positive way,” said Drake, who credited four legislators with making the library funds happen: Rep. Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro), Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro), Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) and Clem.

“The library is the heart of our community,” Dalin said during his recent State of the City speech. “It is an economic necessity for our town center.”

He noted that Cornelius is a majority-Latino city where 40 percent of the residents don’t have high-speed Internet.

For many of them, the library is where they access computers in order to apply for jobs or to earn their General Educational Development certificate, now that the program has moved online, Dalin said.

But in a low-turnout election last November, Cornelius voters narrowly rejected a $2.4 million library bond, casting doubt on the whole $12.8 million Cornelius Place proposal, which included a community room and two floors of affordable senior housing that would be built by the nonprofit Bienestar, which has committed $8 million to the project.

It was a tough loss. But Dalin said he heard from many library supporters who said they didn’t take the time to vote because they were sure the measure would pass. “Folks thought it was such a no-brainer,” he said. They asked him for another chance.

With support from those and other citizens, the Cornelius City Council decided to put the measure back on the ballot in May.

But now, “we don’t have to go to the voters,” Drake said. The $2.4 million from the legislature will replace the $2.4 million voters would have needed to approve.

Library boosters still need to raise another $2.4 million from private and public sources, but Library Director Karen Hill is confident those grants and donations will come.

Last summer, she said, capital consultants helped library supporters plan how to raise that money. “We’ll start within the next several weeks,” Hill said, noting they’d hoped to start last fall.

Since then, both the cost of materials and the interest rate have risen, Hill said, changing the project’s original plans.

Under the revised proposal, the building’s overall footprint drops from 23,000 to 18,000 square feet. Instead of an extra 5,000 square feet on the building’s first floor, Cornelius Place will have additional parking and an expanded outdoor plaza in back.

The library itself will drop from 16,000 to 13,000 square feet, a loss which can be somewhat mitigated with higher shelves, said Hill, whose spirits aren’t dampened.

“We are just so happy,” she said. “Now we can just move.”