Library patrons use computers in the renovated South Wing at the Detroit Public Library, which is facing an $11 million shortfall. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Detroit — Chairs aren't the only thing that cost $1,100 apiece in a controversial renovation of a Detroit Public Library wing.
So did the trash cans.
The $2.3 million remodel of the South Wing of the Main Library opened to the public Tuesday, and documents obtained this week by The Detroit News show it includes eight stainless-steel trash cans that cost taxpayers about $8,900.
The expense is fueling an outcry that began last week after The News reported the system spent $1,092 apiece for 20 European-designed lounge chairs for the wing — at the same time officials are considering closing 18 of 23 neighborhood branches and laying off workers because of an $11 million shortfall.
"There are some branches that don't have air conditioning," said Michael Wells, president of UAW Local 2200, representing about 120 library staffers.
"But we have $1,100 trash cans in the main library? I think it's exorbitant."
Library commissioners may soon take action. An investigation into the South Wing renovation found "inexplicable irregularities" in awarding contracts, and staffers could soon be disciplined, said Russ Bellant, a member of the Detroit Public Library Commission.
"It appears abuses took place regarding the South Wing construction," Bellant said. "Policies were ignored in the awarding of contracts."
"We've narrowed down the review and are taking steps to resolve it."
He declined further comment. But a copy of the investigation obtained by The News shows the library granted a $125,600 contract to a Chicago architecture firm to manage and design the South Wing, even though the company's initial bid didn't include any prices.
The report also found that it was "common knowledge" among library staff that the firm, Frye Gillan Molinaro Architects, wasn't supposed to get more work because of legal issues related to claims of unpaid subcontractors on another library project it managed.
A company representative declined comment Wednesday.
"We inquired as to why employees had not stepped forward sooner to express their concerns regarding the procurement policy," the investigator hired by commissioners wrote. "The general response was that they feared their employment with the library would be in jeopardy."
The project began in 2007 as a $300,000 furniture update and morphed into a larger renovation, including new floors, study rooms, lighting and built-in wood-frame bookshelves.
In addition to the trash cans and chairs, records show that $78,100 was spent to custom build a circular wooden service desk.
Twenty-one staff workstations cost $3,600 apiece and eight filing cabinets cost $630 each. The rehab also includes two alcohol-burning $5,000 fireplaces and 24 pendant light fixtures for $531 each.
Library user John Franklin Mason called the rehab "beautiful" but questioned the cost.
"Don't get me wrong, I love it," he said Wednesday. "But I don't think it was needed that bad."
Edward Thomas, chairman of the library commission, said he hasn't seen the trash cans but isn't concerned as long as they are heavy duty.
"You want it to be something that will last as opposed to something that will break down," Thomas said.
He said the library's financial problems stem from a drop in property taxes — not the South Wing project. In addition to closing branches, the system is considering laying off as many as 191 of 333 workers.
"If I was in a position to be laid off, I would be upset, too," Thomas said. "I would be looking for someone to blame, too."
Library administrators agree the furniture prices are excessive, but blame each other. Commissioners said they never received a breakdown of expenses — or asked for one.
Executive Director Jo Anne Mondowney came aboard 19 months ago. Before she started, the commission approved the furniture budget — and a committee of staffers led by Deputy Director Juliet Machie picked the project's overall design direction but left individual furniture purchases to Frye, said library spokesman A.J. Funchess.
The commission approved construction on the project in September 2009, the same month Mondowney started. Machie was interim director for about three months before that.
Machie said she was involved only in general design, not furniture. She said Mondowney removed her from the project in November 2009.
Commission minutes show the $624,000 contract for furniture and shelving to vendor Library Design Associates of Plymouth was approved in May 2010, under Mondowney's watch.
The commission's investigation concluded that Machie recommended in 2008 the commission approve the contract with Frye, but Machie said she consulted a library lawyer on the choice and was told there was no issue with the contractor from its previous job.
Machie declined further comment about the investigation.