Residents’ passionate outcries against closing the North Branch and South Branch libraries at the Jan. 9 budget workshop may have given them a one-year reprieve so that residents can find ways to raise money to keep them open. Similar pleas to save the Evanston Community Media Center (ECMC) were met with more with questions from aldermen than support. Closing the library branches and cutting the funding to the media center are among the many expense reductions proposed in the City Manager’s budget for fiscal year 2010-11.

The Branch Libraries

The tentative budget for fiscal year 2010-11 presented to City Council members on Dec. 31 calls for about $7 million in expense reductions. Among these are closing the two branch libraries, which would reduce expenses – including maintenance and personnel – by about $425,000.

Among the reasons residents cited for keeping the branches open were their use by young families, school children and senior citizens.

Even before citizen comment began, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said that when she was Seventh Ward alderman and trying to save the branch libraries, “we were told that [residents] could not raise funds because the main library was raising funds for the Teen Loft. … A large group of people is willing to pay to support the branch libraries. I think we should let them pay.”

A recently formed group, saveourlibraries.net, is hoping that residents communitywide will get involved in saving the braches. A flier passed out at the meeting stated, “In a tax bill of $5,000, only $22 is allocated for the libraries. … Hundreds of District 65 students from every ward can and do walk to the branch libraries. There are no District 65 schools within walking distance of the main library.” According to the flyer, 784 persons have signed a petition to save the libraries, while in a poll posted on the City’s website in December, asking residents to vote on cuts in the upcoming budget, only 40 or the some 1,000 people voting said to close them.

Several residents asked for a one-year reprieve to allow supporters to unite and form a pan for a public-private partnership not only to keep both branches open but also to try to establish at least one more branch, on the west or southwest side of town.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “I promised my constituents I would try to look at alternative sources and not close the libraries.”

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, asked Mr. Bobkiewicz “to look into what opportunities we have in terms of public-private partnerships. … We need a plan to keep the branches open and open up another branch. My biggest fear is that once they are closed, they will be gone forever. 

The North Branch is located at 2214 Central St.; the South Branch is at 949 Chicago Ave.

Evanston Community Media Center

The tentative budget also proposed a cut of $200,000 of the funding to the Evanston Community Media Center. Last year, the City funded ECMC in the amount of $390,000, and executive director Steve Bartlebaugh says if the Council approves the cuts the center may have to fold. More than 10 speakers praised ECMC for its programs, its community outreach and its successes, such as producing shows that have won regional and national awards. Many of the speakers were from Evanston, but some were from Chicago or nearby suburbs; all said they had a history with ECMC and asked that the funding not be cut.

The media center, created in the 1980s, was reorganized as a not-for-profit entity several years ago. The City receives a franchise fee from Comcast and from AT&T in return for use of City parkways and alleys for their utility boxes. Historically, the City has directed a part of this fee – which is about 6 percent of gross revenues of the utility in that area – toward funding for the media center. According to the franchise agreement, City staff said, there is no obligation to use the funds for the media center.

Dickelle Fonda of the group Stop the Box (an ad hoc group trying to stop the installation of the AT&T VRADs) said, “From a community perspective, it would be a travesty to have 90 ugly, loud [AT&T VRADs] on our green parkways and not use the franchise fee to allow ECMC to function.”

John Szoztek, founder of Piccolo Theatre, the Custer Street Fair and the Evanston Arts Depot, spoke of the experience and training that people receive through ECMC. He said, “There is a lot of potential for ECMC. We are going to see a dramatic change on how people view media and content. … ECMC is a way to innovate our way out of our [financial] situation.”

Mr. Bartlebaugh and several ECMC board members also spoke of the need for the media center and for the funding level to remain the same as last year. Mr. Bartlebaugh said that if the funding were not cut, he would follow the example of the City Manager and other department heads and take a 5 percent pay cut.

Mary Alice Ball, who spoke in favor of keeping the branch libraries open, asked that ECMC be given the same one-year reprieve requested for the libraries.