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On Aug. 4, the Evanston Library Board voted, 6-2, to establish the “Library Fund” model provided for in the Illinois Local Library Act to provide funding for the library. Under this model, the “Library Board has the power to determine the library taxes to be levied, within limitations, and the corporate authorities are obligated to collect those taxes and deposit them into a Library Fund,” said Paul Gottschalk, Administrative Services Manager of the Library, in a July 26 memo to the Library Board.

“[T]he City of Evanston would levy and collect property taxes in an amount determined by the Library Board and deposit the funds in a special revenue fund, known as the Library Fund,” Mr. Gottschalk added. “Expenditures from the Library Fund would be under the direction of the Library Board.”

The model was one of four funding options discussed in a report prepared by the Sustainable Funding Task Force formed by the Library Board in January “to explore the validity and viability of long-term sustainability funding options.”

The Library Board made its decision against a backdrop of recent budget cuts for the library and for the City as a whole. City Council’s decision to eliminate the branch libraries at 2026 Central St. and 949 Chicago Ave., unless the Library Board or citizen groups raised money to fund the branches, generated an emotional response from supporters of the branches, as well as from those who opposed their continued operation.

The Library Board’s decision to exercise its statutory authority to set the tax levy for library funds raised emotions to a higher level. At the beginning of the City Council’s meeting on Aug. 9, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl invited the Library Board to have a joint meeting with City Council to be held on Sept. 13.

“The City Council has many questions about the proposal and I am convinced if we meet we can come up with a better solution that works for the entire community,” Mayor Tisdahl said. “Library services are part of the bond that holds the community together. They should not be a source of division. At the moment they are s source of division. I think we can do better if we all work together.

Members of the Library Board are appointed by the Mayor, with the consent of City Council.

The Library Board’s Rationale

At a City Council meeting on Aug. 9, Library Board President Christopher Stewart explained the rationale for the decision. “I am saddened to report to you that EPL [Evanston Public Library], by a strikingly wide margin, is the poorest funded library among our neighboring communities in northern Illinois,” he said. “Every year our collection grows older and more out of date and thousands of much needed books and digital resources that should be provided to the community are not.”

The library has suffered from years of “chronic underfunding,” he continued. “We believe it is time for a new model. The Library Board supports a funding model that is used by most non-district libraries in Illinois and is supported by Illinois law.”

In a comparison to other communities, Mr. Gottschalk reported in a memo to the Library Board that Evanston spends $57.64 per resident on an annual basis, substantially less than five other communities: Champaign – $96.62; Des Plaines – $117.51; Northbrook – $221.85; Skokie – $207.00; and Arlington Heights – $175.67.

While the figures for Evanston do not appear to include all costs for debt service or overhead, the annual expenditures are much less across all line items. For example, Evanston spends $3.8 million on salaries, compared to Skokie’s $7.3 million; Evanston spends $459,100 on library materials, compared to Skokie’s $1,541,489.

Mr. Stewart said, “We are confident that by working closely with the Mayor, the City Council and citizens, the Library Fund can be implemented in a way, based on pass-through revenues and negotiated charge-backs, that minimizes the impact on Evanston taxpayers in these tough economic times.”

Michael Tannen, an attorney and member of the Library’s Sustainable Funding Task Force, supported the funding model selected by the Library Board. In an interview with the RoundTable, he said it would free the library from the politicalization of the budget process, and allow experts in operating libraries to determine budget priorities.

Mr. Tannen added that the Library Board is made up of dedicated people. They are planning to hold public hearings to gather input on the library’s budget; they will make a thoughtful, deliberate, transparent decision on the budget, he said.

Ellen Newcomer, a former member of the Library Board and a member of Evanston Public Library Friends (EPLF), told the RoundTable that the library needs to rebuild its collection of books and double the number of computers, for starters, to be a good resource for the community, including people seeking jobs, the elderly, and young people, she said.

Ms. Newcomer added that EPLF was focusing on establishing a presence on the west side of the City, which would include a meeting room and books, and they would let it grow from there. She thought this could be funded by private donations.

Lori Keenan, a member of EPLF, said. “The overwhelming majority of library systems in Illinois manage their own budgets instead of coping with what a City Council allocates. …A budget prepared by a Library Board with the assistance of professionals who have library expertise is what Illinois law envisions.

The Source of the Library Board’s Power

Illinois’ Local Library Act provides, “The library taxes provided for in this Act shall be levied by the corporate authorities [i.e., the City Council] in the amounts determined by the [library] board…and the proceeds shall be deposited in a special fund, which shall be known as the library fund.”

In a case cited by Mr. Tannen, The Village of Winfield, the Illinois Supreme Court said that under this section, “[T]he Village is under a mandatory duty to levy a tax for the establishment and maintenance of the library in the amount determined by the library board.” The Court rejected an argument that the Village possessed the discretion to disapprove the appropriation request.

“There’s nothing revolutionary or radical about the library fund,” Mr. Tannen said. “Instead of depositing the tax funds into the City’s general fund, it goes into the library fund. Instead of the City Manager and City Council making the decision, it is made by members of the Library Board who have expertise in operating the library.”

Mr. Gottschalk said it is a “common practice” to have a tax-supported library fund in home-rule communities and gave as examples: Skokie, Arlington Heights, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Naperville, Northbrook, Morton Grove, Highland Park, Mount Prospect, Lake Forest, and others.

The Court in Winfield, however, did not consider whether the City’s home rule powers under Article VII of the Illinois Constitution could be used to trump the powers granted under the Local Library Act. Courts have held that an ordinance adopted by a home rule municipality, depending on the facts of the case, may supersede a conflicting state statute.

When the Library Board explored the issue back in 1997, the City’s former Corporation Counsel Jack Siegel maintained that the 1970 Illinois Constitution gave the City home rule powers, and that they override a state statute on taxing powers.

Mr. Tannen told the RoundTable he believes the Library Board’s powers trump the City’s home rule powers, citing the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision in Winfield.

Grant Farrar, the City’s Corporation Counsel, said through a spokesperson that he could not comment on whether the City’s home rule powers pre-empted the Library Board’s statutory powers to determine the amount of a property tax levy, because it related to a matter of potential litigation.

At this point it does not appear there is a conflict between a City ordinance and the Local Library Act. Section 7-14-2 of the City’s Code provides that the Library Board “shall have all the power and authority conferred by” state statutes concerning public libraries. The ordinance thus appears to ratify the authority given to the Library Board under the Local Library Act.

Concerns About the Decision

Many people have raised concerns about the Library Board’s decision. The concerns include that the Board acted without first holding a public hearing to gather community input, that the Library Board may increase property taxes and do so in a setting that does not balance the need for library services with all of the City’s other needs, and that members of the Library Board are not elected.

Library Board to Hold Funding Forums

The City of Evanston’s Library Board will be holding two public Library Funding Forums. The forums will discuss the history of the library, an overview of the report of the Task Force on Sustainable Funding, an overview of the Library Fund and be available for questions and answers.

The first Forum will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on Aug. 28 in the Community Meeting Room at the Main Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

The second Forum will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 1 in the auditorium at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...