CLAYTON — Officials in Frontenac who are opposed to the construction of a St. Louis County Library headquarters in their city are being NIMBYs and bullies, and the library system is a gem. And any suggestion that library trustees acted improperly by spending millions on real estate without getting appraisals is an affront.
That was the response Tuesday from the president of the Library Board of Trustees to a letter from St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch calling on County Executive Sam Page to fire the five-member board.
The trustees voted unanimously earlier this summer to build a $20 million administrative building and genealogy center in Frontenac over strong opposition from the city. A Post-Dispatch story in February revealed the library had paid $6.1 million for 6 acres in Frontenac without getting an appraisal first. The properties have been appraised by the county at a total of $2.2 million.
Frontenac’s Board of Aldermen on Aug. 12 passed a resolution urging Page and the County Council to appoint new library directors “who will reconsider and reverse ill-advised decisions” and restore confidence in the library district.
Fitch told Page that every member of the board was serving on an expired term, and that one member’s term had expired more than six years ago. “This unelected Board was selected by previous county executives and are not responsible to any elected body,” Fitch told Page in a letter dated Saturday.
Fitch also asked Page to give the council the power to confirm any nominees to replace the board, which he said would be “another step you can take to restore confidence in county government, which is sorely needed.”
In a letter to Page and the council on Tuesday, library board president Lynn Beckwith Jr. said Frontenac’s statement that the project does not “fit in with the residential character of the area” is a “typical ‘not in my backyard’ statement.”
And the city of Frontenac has tried to “bully and threaten the Library until we become so frustrated that we walk away from the property. While this would be a ‘win’ for Frontenac, it would be a substantial loss for the rest of St. Louis County,” he wrote.
“As a library board, we have a duty and responsibility to St. Louis County residents AS A WHOLE to do what is best for the Library system AS A WHOLE,” Beckwith wrote, asking Page and the council to “not allow one municipality to defeat the operation of the critically acclaimed county-wide library system ….”
To acquire the roughly 6 acres near the corner of Highway 40 (Interstate 64) and Spoede Road from four separate owners, the library’s governing board took the unusual step of waiving its policy of getting appraisals before buying property. All four homes bought by the library will be demolished.
Library officials say the Frontenac location, which is central within the St. Louis region, was key in the decision to spend $6.1 million for the properties. The purchase was funded as part of the library’s plan to build and renovate 19 libraries through a $120 million campaign using proceeds of a tax levy increase passed in 2012.
Beckwith’s letter said the purchase eliminated the need to lease a temporary facility while construction was underway at the new headquarters, and the $6 million was less than the cost for the rebuild and a temporary lease and moving costs.
“The requests that Frontenac and … Fitch have placed before you threaten the independence of libraries as public institutions,” Beckwith wrote. The Frontenac resolution, he said, “is simply the latest step taken by the municipality that does not want a library facility within its boundaries.”
In a special meeting on June 27, the library district voted 5-0 to approve the plan to construct the 81,574-square-foot building. The vote came two days after the Frontenac Planning and Zoning Commission rejected the proposal.
The library district, as a political subdivision of the state, isn’t subject to Frontenac’s zoning ordinances, and its board of trustees, by resolution, can overrule the city with a two-thirds majority — or four of the five trustees.
Attorneys for the city of Frontenac sued the library district in July in an effort to stop construction. The lawsuit asks the St. Louis County Circuit Court to issue a preliminary and permanent injunction stopping the construction “because the district refuses to engage in meaningful discussion about the appropriate use” of the land in question.
Jeremy Kohler • 314-340-8337 @jeremykohler on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org