Gritters Library's budget overruns still causing heartburn for county

Jan. 9—MARIETTA — Nearly a decade after an overhaul of Gritters Library was approved by Cobb's voters, the county is still struggling to figure out how to close a $2.5 million hole in its budget.

The 2016 special purpose local option sales tax project remains short on funds after its original budget ballooned over the years to some $10.5 million.

The cost overruns have been partially due to rising construction and labor expenses, per county department heads. But it's also because the original SPLOST budget was never going to be enough to cover the replacement of the 1970s-era building, according to Cobb Libraries Director Helen Poyer.

County Manager Jackie McMorris said the original cost was projected at $8.6 million, but the Board of Commissioners at the time approved only $2.9 million.

Over the years, commissioners have been able to cobble together money through state grants and extra SPLOST collections. But they're still trying to get the project over the final hill.

"Had we (had) the money initially, we probably would be close to ... cutting the ribbon," Poyer said at the commissioners' work session Monday.

Tuesday, the board will vote on a request to the state's Board of Regents for a $1 million grant that would get the county a bit closer to the finish line. The Board of Regents previously gave the county $1.9 million toward the project in 2021.

The latest grant request comes after an effort to use reserve funds to close the budget hole was pulled in September for lack of support. Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who represents the area, suggested revisiting that idea Monday, proposing the county go ahead and put the money up and potentially reimburse itself with the state grant down the road.

Birrell added that time is of the essence, because the $1.9 million the state awarded in 2021 will expire at the end of this year.

"I would hate to see us lose this funding on a project that's been put out publicly on a SPLOST," offered Chairwoman Lisa Cupid.

But Commissioner Keli Gambrill, who opposed using reserve funds when it was last brought up in September, reiterated her objections.

"The bottom line is, the library system continues to design a building that exceeds their budget, expecting us to subsidize it from the general fund," she said.

Gambrill then warned Cupid that dipping into reserve funds was not a practice the board should get into the habit of, pointing to a potential transit expansion sales tax referendum Cupid is eyeing for 2024.

"If you're looking at doing a transportation SPLOST and wanting your constituents to believe that you're not going to use general fund dollars to subsidize SPLOST, we don't start now," Gambrill added.

But Cupid encouraged Birrell to continue discussions over how the county could finally get the project fully funded. And McMorris argued not fully funding the project soon would just be kicking the can down the road.

"It'll be back on the SPLOST again in another eight to 10 years, and you're going to get another board that will ask why didn't you do ... what you needed to do — when you were tearing it down and renovating it — when you had the chance," McMorris said.

Added Support Services Director Sharon Stanley, "We would be spending money to keep it up for the next five, 10 years ... I'd be coming back nickel-and-diming you to fix things."