Orange County Library Director Lucinda Munger said last week that a $25 million county project, approved years ago, is forcing her to consider closing three smaller library branches.

Munger has been criticized in recent weeks for floating the closures of the Carrboro Cybrary, the Carrboro Branch Library and the Cedar Grove Branch Library as cost-saving measures. Munger suggested closing the branches in response to County Manager Laura Blackmon’s request that all department managers make significant cuts to their 2009-2010 budgets.

But Munger said last week the opening of a new, larger Orange County main library is tying her hands.

“No closings really are savings, because we have to open a new main library,” she said.

The new main library, set to open this fall, is part of the $25 million Orange County Campus, a development of county buildings approved by the Orange County Board of Commissioners several years ago. A county commissioner said the county made the decision to borrow a large amount of money and embark on a sizeable construction project with just a week of discussion and only one public hearing.

“I expressed serious reservations at the time,” Commissioner Alice Gordon said. “The process on which it was brought forth did not have enough public input.”

Commissioner Barry Jacobs said he presented the project to the board after a local developer, George Horton, approached him with a proposal. Horton offered to build the campus under the “construction manager at risk” approach, in which the developer pre-contracts to build for a certain price per square foot, and doesn’t increase his fee even if the costs of raw materials go up. Jacobs said this was a particularly attractive proposal at the time; the housing market was booming and the cost of steel and concrete had driven two new schools’ price tags well above what the county had budgeted for them.

Additionally, a number of county offices were housed in substandard buildings in disparate locations, and county officials felt it would benefit the public as well as employees to move them all into one central, modern office. Jacobs also said three library task forces had recommended building a new main library.

“People may second-guess the timing,” Jacobs said. “We made the best decision we could with the available information.”

Gordon agreed that the county needed new office space, but said that the current financial quandary the project has placed the county in is a result of the hasty decision-making process undertaken in its approval; in a year where the county is facing an $8.7 million budget shortfall, the added expenses of staffing and operating larger facilities are creating unforeseen hardships for departments like the library.

“When the board made the decision to move forward, it was well before we saw the bottom totally falling out,” Orange County Budget Director Donna Coffey said. “It’s almost like the perfect storm.”

Coffey said the county is anticipating a $280,000 increase in “non-staff related” expenditures related to the new facility. And that’s before the county has to start paying back the $25 million loan; a document from a March 2009 commissioners meeting shows that the county expects to pay $3.189 million on the loan in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.