At the invitation of Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, library board members attended the Sept. 13 City Council meeting, to discuss the board’s Aug. 4 decision to assume control of its revenues and expenses by following the state-authorized model of a library fund. While the ostensible purpose was to begin a dialogue between the two bodies, concerns about money, power and authority permeated both the board/Council discussion and the majority of citizen comments that preceded it. Library board members defended their decision and their right to have made it, and some Council members appeared to feel they were victims of an organized campaign or a minor coup.
“On August 4th, we voted to invoke the Illinois Local Library Act and moved toward a path to fund [library expenses] by the library-fund model,” said Dr. Christopher Stewart, president of the library board. “The immediate [reason] was to stabilize the [funding] situation,” he added. With a library fund, the library board determines the annual budget and notifies the City Council of the amount needed. That amount, which cannot be decreased by the City Council, must be levied by the City and deposited into a library fund that is under the exclusive control of the library board. This model is followed by most libraries in the state, said library board member Gail Bush, who is also a librarian.
“We all know that ‘sustainable funding’ is a tax,” said Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward.
The concern that the library board’s decision would lead to increased taxes or reduced spending in other areas or both was expressed by at least two speakers. Michael Vasilko said he felt the library board “should be honest” about the fact that their decision “will result in higher taxes.”
Carolyn Murray suggested that a choice would have to be made between “a library and a dental clinic. … We don’t have the money. We should be careful until we have the money.”
Other speakers indicated that they would be willing to pay additional property taxes and that they trusted the library board to make prudent decisions. “The library board will provide the financial stability for the library and meet the needs of a literate and cultural community. … Not all the money spent in the City of Evanston is wisely spent,” said Frances Seidman.
A library board member said they board would come up with a budget that could call for an increase as little as $20 or even $5 per taxpayer for next year.
Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne said, “We [the board and the Council] have overlapping responsibilities but we have different charges. Under the library fund model, you are the taxing body for the library fund, whereas we are the taxing body with the responsibility for the entire City. The library board’s decisions are inextricably tied to every decision that we make. If we decide we are going to hold the line and not raise taxes and you decide that you want more money, we have to raise taxes or choose to cut programs or services or to fire employees. … You aren’t operating in a vacuum. We’re linked as taxing bodies, and I want you to understand what that link means.”
A draft ordinance created at Mayor Tisdahl’s request would use the present funding for the library as a “floor” for future funding and tie any increases to increases in the General Fund, the City’s main operating budget.
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, called the draft ordinance “generous.” Yet the proposal was not universally well received. During citizen comment several speakers objected to it. Gary Rejebian said, “I firmly back the library fund and object to the ordinance indexing the library fund to the General Fund. We should embrace this commitment rather than marginalizing it to the lowest common denominator.”
Bob Crews said, “This is not an issue of money but [of] doing what needs to be done.”
Trying to ascertain which side held the greater power, Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, said, “If it’s a matter of consenting [to the library board’s decision], we need to know where we stand. If it’s not a matter of consent, we need to know what to do.” He asked City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to “have the board tell us where we are.”
At least one board member expressed concern that the Council was trying to exert power over the board. Diane Allen said, “I don’t know how a dialogue can take place when we were very, very recently given a proposed ordinance that subverts what we are trying to do.”
Dr. Stewart said he was gratified by the support of more than two dozen residents who spoke in favor of the board’s decision. Although both Ald. Jean-Baptiste and Ald. Burrus indicated they felt the board had marshaled that support, board members said the speakers had showed up without prompting from board members
Evanston is a home-rule community and has broad powers that can in some instances trump state statutes. At issue at this meeting was whether either side exceeded its authority – the library board with its decision to follow the state statute or the City with its proposed ordinance to limit the library’s authority to determine its funding.
Ellen Newcomer and Laurie McFarlane, both lawyers and supporters of the board’s decision said they did not believe the City had the authority to override the state library act. Of the proposed ordinance, Ms. McFarlane said, “I’m looking at the proposed ordinance and it’s clearly illegal. What I don’t support are doomed lawsuits – which Evanston seems to love.”
Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar was not able to provide a definitive answer. “The Illinois Library Act serves as the starting point, not the ending point. … The statute is very detailed and the hour is very late [it was after 11 p.m.] and Council has a lot left on the agenda,” he said.
Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “Maybe I can take a stab at this. The language is not crystal clear in the state statute. Communities have interpreted the state law to conform to their practices.
Mr. Farrar added, “There are cases that say the law is mandatory; other cases take a different point of view. None is 100 percent in line with the facts presented by the City of Evanston.”
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said, “I agree that library services are underfunded. … I know that the library fund would be good for the library. I don’t know what the Evanston community would think. … We need to determine how we get a sense of how the community feels about this.”
Dr. Stewart invited City Council members to the library board meeting at 7:30 p.m. tonight. Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, suggested to library board members that they attend ward meetings.