There seems to be a certainty in the bleak near future of the Garden City Public Library.
It will not be part of the future community center at Schoolcraft College’s Radcliff Center, which the city recently purchased to replace the current Maplewood Community Center.
The city has been involved in a legal battle with the library since October 2021, and also has no plans to move the library to the new facility if Maplewood, where the library currently operates, closes.
“I don’t know why they should be,” City Manager Doc Dougherty said. “That does not make sense.”
The two disputes are the latest events in what library officials describe as a longstanding contentious relationship between the two public services. Dougherty said he’s confused as to why people think they’re in a bad relationship.
“People say it’s moving on,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s going on with anything.”
Well, let’s take a look.
A historically underfunded “people’s university”
According to library director James Lenze, the problems began in 2006 when the city moved its library from a standalone building on Middlebelt Road to the Maplewood Center.
The cost-cutting move reduced the library’s size by almost half — growing from a 12,000-square-foot facility to a 6,500-square-foot suite — and required a three-month library closure during the move. Lenze said city leaders wanted to close the library and strike a deal with Westland’s library, but public outcry prompted the city to keep it going.
In 2011, the city was on the verge of making the decision to close the library due to financial problems before residents took action again. This time, the library reopened as an independent, taxpayer-funded entity separate from the city government.
“The city council has again decided to close the library,” said Lenze. “Residents were asking the city to hold us open until a mill could be voted on. The mill was handed over and the library reopened.”
According to Paul Werhane, who has been on the library’s board of directors since the 1980s, the library as a city department was never a priority.
“We never had more than 2 percent of the city budget,” he said.
Most recently, in September 2021, the city council voted to end the library’s retirement insurance plan by the city, affecting one library retiree.
Dougherty and Mayor Randy Walker noted that they weren’t there for some of those decisions, which is true for Dougherty’s 2006 graduation and anything prior to 2019. However, Lenze and some board members of the library were present. They say people may be different but the vibe stays the same.
“There’s been an anti-library group in town for years,” Werhane said. “This is nothing new.”
Now Garden City’s library is supported by two communities – one to operate and one to fund a new facility. Each brings in about $500,000 a year. The library also has an elected board of directors and is no longer a city department.
But Article 4, Section 8 of the City Bylaws still lists the library as a city department, even though the two split about a decade ago.
A dispute over the Maplewood Center and money
The Maplewood Center library lease expires June 30 and is unlikely to be renewed. Dougherty told Hometown Life the city had no plans to continue leasing space to the library, but Lenze said he had received no communication from the city either way.
The city plans to end the lease because it claims the library is a bad tenant.
Garden City filed a lawsuit against the library in October 2021 for six years of rent and administration costs, and the library recently filed a counterclaim against the city, alleging that the city is failing to fulfill its duties as the library’s financial agent. Dougherty said the debt continues to decline, but Michigan’s statute of limitations limits the city to six years.
As part of the lease and fiscal agency agreements between the two, Garden City was to receive $31,500 annually and bill for services like snow removal when the library requests them. The documents state that the library is also responsible for its share of Maplewood’s electricity, water, and other utilities.
Due to the length of the litigation, both parties declined to comment on specifics or disclose the exact amount the city owes the library. According to figures included in the city’s lawsuit, Garden City is seeking more than $85,000 for various services to the library.
Walker said the lawsuit is less about hard feelings and more about the library’s obligations. Legal action was taken after financial talks between the two parties broke down and the library declined to settle the dispute through arbitration.
“When they refused to go to arbitration, we felt we had no choice but to file a lawsuit,” Walker said. “We’re not trying to get rid of the library. We want the library to pay what it owes.”
Library officials disagreed, saying there wasn’t a financial dispute until Dougherty started working in Garden City a few years ago. The fiscal agency agreement entitles the city to a detailed copy of the library’s annual budget, which would outline plans for paying fees to the city.
“That’s because the city manager interpreted these contracts differently than everyone else in the last eight years,” said Lenze.
Despite the uncertain future, fears that the library will close forever are unfounded
So what now?
Dougherty and Walker raised the possibility of the library purchasing the Maplewood Center, of which the library now owns about 15%, when it closes. Lenze said the Library Authority doesn’t seem willing to buy Maplewood.
Lenze hopes that if the library needs to move, the city will do a “favor” by giving the city a few months to do so.
The library also owns the former Burger School site at Dillon Road and Beechwood Avenue to build a new facility. Dougherty and Walker both claimed the library also had money for a new building.
“They have their own money to build their own facility,” Dougherty said.
That’s not entirely true.
The library’s millage to build a new facility runs through 2029. By that time, the library will have saved enough to pay for a new structure, including the meeting room, study rooms, youth department, and technology it doesn’t have now .
But that’s seven years away.
Lenze said one option is to rent retail space until then. But that would involve another move and a temporary closure. Lenze said the costs associated with a move would also likely further delay the eventual construction of a new facility. His preferred scenario remains leasing space in Maplewood.
Some residents have expressed fears at public meetings that the city will simply lock the library and throw away the key.
“We have no way of shutting them down,” Dougherty said.
And that’s true.
The library is independent from Garden City. The city could temporarily make the library homeless, but it can’t shut it down forever.
“At the moment we have some bumps on the road, but we will make it,” said Lenze. “Seven years sounds like a long time, but it will be here before you know it.”
Despite the rocky road she has traveled over the past 15 years, Lenze believes that the library is worth fighting for. Thanks to the support of the community he thinks it will be good.
“For me, libraries are indispensable for democracies,” said Lenze. “It’s the only place where you can come and be exposed to ideas that don’t match yours, you can explore new ideas. It’s the People’s University.”
Contact reporter Shelby Tankersley at email@example.com or 248-305-0448. Follow her on Twitter @shelby_tankk.