The walls at this WI library shine bright, but ask about costs and things go dark


By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — The exterior walls at the Madison Central Library are bright, eye-catching. Yet taxpayers wondering how much all of this luminosity cost are left in the dark.

LAND OF CONFUSION: Madison government officials say they don’t know the taxpayer expense of the luminous walls at the Central Library.

Don’t bother seeking answers from the Madison Finance Department, Mayor Paul Soglin‘s office, the city’s engineering department, the library director or MSR Architecture, the firm that designed the recently completed $29.8 million renovation project.

They’ll tell you they don’t know.

But David Williams, president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers Protection Alliance in Virginia, isn’t buying it.

“I refuse to believe that somewhere they don’t have this,” Williams said. “Government is in the job of collecting information and storing information. I just think they don’t want to give (it out) because they don’t want to be embarrassed.”

The cost of the colorful walls — installed by H.J. Martin & Son and Nickles Electric — isn’t available because that feature was not a discrete design and construction element of the project, according to Madison Finance Director David Schmiedicke.

Madison Facilities and Sustainability Manager Jeanne Hoffman also said the plans and specifications were sent in one lump-sum bid.

“Our bids are not itemized, and we have, really, no way of knowing what the light wall cost,” she added.

Because of the exclusion, the Madison Common Council did not consider whether such a flourish — the luminescent glass that wraps around the Central Library — was even needed.

“We knew that there would be design elements included that we weren’t going to be discussing in great detail,” Council President Chris Schmidt said. “But we set an overall budget for the project, and if they got it in within that budget, great.”

Although city officials say they don’t know the precise cost, Jeff Petet, a project manager with Nickles Electric, told Wisconsin Reporter his company’s share of the work is estimated at $53,500.

LIGHT IT UP: A private contractor says the luminous walls at the Central Library have cost taxpayers at least $53,500.

That total includes light fixtures, conduits, wiring and labor, according to Petet.

H.J. Martin was responsible for placing the frames and glass, Petet said.

Numerous messages left with Chad Hultman, a project manager with H.J. Martin, were not returned.

As a comparison, the lighted question-mark sculpture on the northwest side of the building, paid with a private donation, cost about $150,000.

Nickles Electric charged the city $5,163 to get the wiring in place for the 21-foot-tall question mark, Petet said.

But what are those superfluous items costing taxpayers now?

Madison Library Director Greg Mickells says it would be difficult to determine the monthly electrical expense of operating the luminous walls and sculpture.

Mickells was unable to calculate those figures in time for this story.

Williams is particularly disturbed about city officials not knowing the financial specifics of the cosmetic features, especially when Madison taxpayers have been facing property tax increases in each of the past five years.

The Madison tax rate has jumped by nearly 20 percent from 2010 to this year, according to data supplied by Schmiedicke.

A Madison homeowner with a house valued at $200,000 would have paid $1,580 in city property taxes in 2010. That same resident is paying $1,900 in 2014.

“I would say it’s pretty ridiculous that a city that’s raising taxes would spend this kind of money (on non-essential luminous walls),” Williams said. “Regardless of whether or not it’s included in the construction costs, it looks bad for the taxpayers when you’re asking them for more money and then they see these luxuries.”

Hoffman says the purpose of the walls and question mark is to provide a presence on the street that attracts patrons and encourages people to use the library.

The luminescent wall on West Mifflin Street also addresses a safety concern by supplying better lighting at night for pedestrians, according to Mickells.

“People are more comfortable walking up that path to the library now that it’s well-lit,” Mickells said.

Contact Adam Tobias at or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias

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