Dismay about the possible closing of the north and south branch libraries drew about 100 protestors to each branch on Jan. 18. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

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 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 the dozen or more 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.”

Kit Elliot said that closing the south branch library would be “slam[ming] shut the literacy door” to users such as Park School students, who, she said, regularly walk there.

Amy Wharton, the library media specialist at Lincoln School, said several fourth-grade students circulated petitions in classes there, opposing the proposed closing of the south branch. “As an educator, [I see] the proximity of the south branch [to Lincoln School] as equity. Students [without computers at home and who cannot get to the Main Library] can check books out, use a computer, print things. …”

Jeff Smith, an Evanston resident and candidate for state representative, said he felt the proposal to close the branch libraries focused on the “savings” but “discounted the costs. … There are more than 130,000 users of the branch libraries. Where will they go? If they go to the Main Library, this will mean more than 30 new users per hour, which means we will have to hire more staff or expand the hours. … If they go to Wilmette, they will also take their shopping dollars with them, as many library visits are in conjunction with shopping. … Closing the branches is a diminution of the educational purpose of libraries.” He said the cost of keeping the branches open is about the same as the cost of one compact disk per household per year, but the cost of closing them is a “cost in the perception of the City, when we are trying to build Evanston as a center of knowledge.”

Two recently formed groups, saveourlibraries.net and branchLove.net, say they hope residents communitywide will get involved in saving the branches. A flyer distributed at the Jan. 9 budget workshop by saveourlibraries.net 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 of 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 plan 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.”

At the Jan. 12 meeting of the Mayor’s Budget Committee, Mr. Bobkiewicz and Assistant City Manager Martin Lyons said that it would be possible to create either a special taxing district, called a special service area, or an independent library district, which would also be able to levy taxes. Mr. Lyons said an independent library district would be able to levy taxes Citywide for the library and any branches. “There will be added costs,” he said, because of the operation of an independent district.

Organizers of the efforts to save the branches say they prefer an overall taxing district to a special service area.

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 ten 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.

Local cable television provides PEG channels for local residents, with public access, education and government. Through ECMC, Channel 6 airs locally produced programs, among other things. Channel 16, the City channel, broadcasts and rebroadcasts City Council meetings and some City committee meetings, as well as the City’s calendar. Evanston Township High School meetings and shows are shown on channel 18 and District 65 shows and meetings on channel 19.

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 he had won an Emmy for one of his shows on NBC, and “a lot of my experience on camera came from ECMC. … 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.”

Joan Ducayet, president of the Evanston Fourth of July Association, said the commentary when the Fourth of July parade is aired on ECMC is one example of how not-for-profits benefit from the center.

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. He said if the funding is not cut, he will 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 a one-year reprieve as requested for the libraries.

Next Steps

The next two budget workshops are scheduled for Jan. 23 and Jan. 30. The public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Feb. 1.