Members of the Evanston Library Board held their first of two forums on Aug. 28, explaining their Aug. 4 decision to exercise their statutory authority to determine the library’s budget and to direct City Council to levy property taxes in an amount determined by the library board. The property taxes collected as a result of the levy would be deposited into a “library fund” that would be separate from the City’s general fund and controlled by the library board.

While speakers at the meeting said that this decision would not create a new tax, they soft-pedaled the fact that if the library board increased the amount of money budgeted for library services beyond what the City Manager had budgeted, the City would either have to make cuts in other parts of the City’s budget or raise property taxes to offset any increase for library services. City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable, “Both recommending service cuts and tax increases for City Council consideration would be likely,” depending upon the extent of the proposed increases.

In recent years the City has funded the majority of City services through the General Fund, with monies to be spent for salaries and operations of most City functions – police, fire, libraries, recreation and social services, as examples – deposited into and paid from that fund. During the budgeting process, City Council determines the amount to be allocated to each of the City’s functions, often prioritizing the City’s services and deciding where cuts can be made to balance the budget.

Under the “library fund” system of budgeting, however, the library board will determine each year the amount needed to fund library services and submit that amount to the City Manager to be included in the annual City budget. Neither the City Manager nor the City Council may increase or reduce the amount proposed by the library board, said Michael Tannen, a member of the task force for sustainable funding. Thus, with the limited amount of revenues flowing into the City, if the amount determined by the library board to be necessary for library services exceeds the amount the City Manager had allocated in his tentative budget, funds will have to be brought in from elsewhere – most likely from cuts in other City programs, personnel or services or through an increase in property taxes – to meet the library board’s allocation.

Board Says Law and History Are on Its Side

The library board’s decision uses powers already defined by state statute (ILCS 5/1-3 and 3-5) and the City code (7-14-2), said library board president Christopher Stewart.

Two lawyers –Ellen Newcomer of EPL Friends and Mr. Tannen – told the RoundTable that their research supported the proposition that a library fund would be autonomous and independent even in a home-rule community such as Evanston.

In response to a question posed by the RoundTable, the City declined to comment on whether City Council could use its home rule powers to pass an ordinance that would trump the state statute.

The library board, its members say, is also following the direction of City Council, which issued two directives earlier this year: One – coming during the budget deliberations when the branch libraries were about to be closed – was a challenge to supporters of the branch libraries to raise $168,000 to keep the libraries open for six months, beginning in August of this year. In four months, the EPL Friends raised $171,000. A second request was that the library board appoint a task force to research methods for sustainable funding for library services.

The task force explored four options, said Mr. Tannen: special service area, public-private partnerships, conversion to an independent library district and the library fund. A special service district is a specific geographic area surrounding a public improvement project, said Mr. Tannen. Residents and businesses within that district pay an additional tax for the improvement, he said, adding that he had found no instance in Illinois of a special service district’s being used for library services. Moreover, he said, a special service district “would have required a substantial tax hike.” 

Public-private partnerships are often beneficial, but the uncertainty of library funding here would likely be a disincentive to potential private partners, he said. Conversion to an independent library district might seem attractive, he said, “but the library and the City have been together for 130 years and we’re not interested in breaking away.”

A library fund, said Mr. Tannen, is “created by state law … “to render the use of the library of greatest benefit to the greatest number of residents and taxpayers.”

Library Board Needs Support of Community, Council

Most community members who attended the forum appeared to support the library board’s decision – or at least to support library services.

Residents who asked specific questions – about future board allocations, branch libraries, etc. – were told that the board had not yet made decisions on these and planned to work with the City on answers to questions like those.

Many board members stressed that they planned to work with the City on funding levels and that the board was cognizant of the City’s ongoing budget crisis.

“We want to stabilize library funding,” Dr. Stewart said. “We want to continually engage the community in developing the library. We want to implement a sustainable funding-model that will ensure a quality public library benefiting the cultural, economic and intellectual diversity of this great community for the present and for future generations.”

In answer to a question from John Zbesko, who is also a member of the board of the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District, about how the board’s capital accounts would work, Mr. Tannen and other library board members said that was one of many aspects of the library fund that would have to be worked out with the City.

Mr. Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable via e-mail, “Staff is currently reviewing what costs not currently directly attributed to Library budget would need to be considered.  These additional costs could include providing administrative support (payroll, purchasing, insurance, utilities, etc.), assumption of capital debt and potentially rent of the North Branch and Main Libraries.  No specific costs have been worked out at this point.”

Jim Keefer asked what the library board wanted from the community. “We have a bump in the road,” he said. “It’s rather apparent that there’s a power struggle between the aldermanic board and the library board. I ask you to contact aldermen to find out why they are so afraid of what you propose.”

Library board member Gail Bush said the purpose of the forum was informational. “There is a feeling that, since this is the first time a library board [in Evanston] has exercised the authority of the board, it was imperative to share [information about that decision] with the community.”

“The library and its funding have become the lightning rod of discussion of the City’s financial woes,” Mr. Tannen said.

A second community forum will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 1 at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, 1655 Foster St.