When community leaders heard that Montgomery County officials were trimming the size of a long-awaited library and recreation center because the project’s estimated cost had risen to $89 million, they wanted details.
Kim Persaud, president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association, filed a request under the Maryland Public Information Act for all correspondence between the county and Grimm + Parker, the architectural firm hired to design the project, to see what reductions were being considered.
No problem, came the reply from the county. Just give us three months to gather the information — and send a check for $58,407 to pay for it.
“This is just intimidation,” Persaud said.
State law allows government agencies to charge “a reasonable fee” for search and preparation of documents. But staff members for the County Council, who are also seeking information about the project, said they have never seen such a price tag attached to a records query.
The county’s general services director, David Dise, and Patrick Lacefield, spokesman for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), said the request was complex, involving thousands of pages of designs and road plans, e-mails and proprietary information that needs to be identified and withheld.
“It’s not as simple as typing the name ‘Grimm and Parker’ into a search on a computer and bringing everything up,” Lacefield said. He added that the county would be glad to work with Persaud in coming up with a less time-consuming request that still answers her questions.
Dise said most of the expense involves three months of data retrieval by information-technology staff members ($50,000), 20 hours of review by the county attorney’s office ($74 an hour) and 13 hours of work by general services staff members ($50 an hour).
Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), who represents Wheaton, also expressed exasperation with the lack of information coming from Dise and Leggett about the progress of the project.
“We need to have some transparency,” she said. “The community has been waiting a long time for this.”
The 55-year-old library building, on Georgia Avenue north of Silver Spring, is one of the county system’s busiest branches. But the facility, which has been plagued by moisture problems and has outmoded heating and cooling systems, is near the end of its useful life.
In 2009, a county panel recommended that in lieu of renovation, a new library be built in Wheaton’s downtown business district, an idea rejected by community leaders. Two years later, Dise proposed that a new library be built on the current site, in combination with the 50-year-old Wheaton Community Recreation Center next door. That building is also beset by mold and a leaky roof and has too little space for the ethnically diverse, fast-growing community. The council voted in 2012 to expedite the dual project.
Plans hit a snag in 2013 when the county’s Historic Preservation Commission recommended that the recreation center — with its curving, pagoda-like roof — be saved as an example of Asian-influenced modernist design. The council rejected that idea, but valuable time was lost.
Last month, officials disclosed that the estimated cost of the co-located library and recreation center had grown from $53.8 million to $89 million, a price tag Leggett’s office said was “unreasonably high.”
Dise told a council committee in February that the biggest cost driver in the plan was $10 million for underground parking. He said his office has been “challenging the architects” to come up with money-saving measures that would not compromise the quality of the two facilities.
Persaud said a major reason for her records request was to determine why $89 million was judged to be excessive — especially given the costs of other county projects. For example, she said, the cost of a new library in Silver Spring, added to the cost of a recreation center in North Potomac, totals $106 million.
“Who decided that this was too expensive?” Persaud asked. “Wheaton just doesn’t get any respect. They’ve shown us in more ways than one that we are irrelevant. Our tax dollars have gone to other communities to build their libraries and rec centers.”
Dise said that the $89 million figure was still “unrefined” and that his office wouldn’t have updated plans until sometime next month. He said there is no plan to cut back on programs to be offered in the new facility, only an effort to reconfigure the space.
“What we’re working toward is a more efficient building,” he said.