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Shhh!” no longer seems to apply to goings-on at the Library. The future of that bastion of quiet research and intellectual pursuit is now one of the hottest topics in Evanston: The hierarchy of collections, services, outreach, even the 21st-century purpose of a Library, are under a microscope, and the City’s financial squeeze and its choices of where to trim the budget this year pitted Library services against other services needed or wanted by different community groups.

The Library board decided on Sept. 15 to adopt guidelines that, Library board president Dr. Christopher Stewart said, would “[1] use the present fiscal year’s budget as a guide and [2] try … to avoid approving any increase in the Library budget that would cause tax increases based on the Library board’s voting and [3] accept the increased personnel and other cost increases.” Some of the cost increases – about $270,000 – will arise from union contract considerations, he said, while others will be the result of increased costs of materials.

The adoption of those guidelines angered the Evanston Public Library Friends, who had rallied over the past several months to raise money to keep the branch libraries open. Some of the Friends group left the Sept. 15 meeting early and angrily – because they said they thought the decision would entail only a few months of funding for the Library next year.

At the Sept. 22 meeting, board members discussed several funding scenarios presented by Paul Gottschalk, administrative services manager for the Library. Among the options were returning certain funding allocations – e.g., for collections (books, magazines, CDs, etc.) and for the branch libraries – to pre-2010-11 levels.

At the Oct. 4 meeting, the board will finalize its preferences for the budget for fiscal year 2011 (March 1- Dec. 31, 2011), Dr. Stewart told the RoundTable. At that meeting, he said, “We will have a discussion to provide Paul [Gottschalk] and the Library with more specific instructions; our goal is to adopt a final budget then.”

He said the baseline for next year’s budget was supposed to be last year’s funding level, with the increases for personnel, but the board is “awaiting the final position of the City” vis-à-vis Library funding.

Timing will prevent the Library board from implementing the Library fund model for fiscal year 2011, Dr. Stewart said: The abbreviated fiscal year for 2011 and the Council’s decision to approve in November a budget that will not go into effect until March 1 of next year left City staff hard-pressed to come up with charge-backs (the Library’s share of administrative costs) and other monies that would have to be allocated as expenses to a Library fund. Once that has been done, and the Library board has an understanding of the expenses, including charge-backs, for which it will be responsible, it will be easier to determine a budget. “We [the Library board] feel that the most effective way to [implement the Library fund is to move through a complete [budget] cycle … to wait for a year to give time for the City to figure out charge-backs. Given the hard work that we’ve done so far, we think the best implementation time would be fiscal year 2012.” He said the all the board members support that time-frame, to allow time to complete plans for such things as neighborhood services (branches), collections and services. He added that, as promised, the board is “very respectful of the City’s financial position.”

Of the future of the branches, Dr. Stewart said he is impressed that “so many people have come out and fought for Library services and branches.”

He said the Library board plans to hold workshops, both internal and public, about the Library fund model and process.

If there is in fact a race to determine Library funding and allocations, Dr. Stewart appears content to have the Library board be the tortoise, even to the City Council’s hare. He helped guide the board’s Aug. 4 decision to invoke the Illinois Local Library Act under which the Library board could set up a discrete fund for Library services. He has defended the board’s decision to City Council and community members. He advocates for increased funding for collections for the Library. And in an interview with the RoundTable earlier this month he said, “The bigger picture here is the Library fund, and that is the long-term strategy. We will continue to move in the direction of a Library-fund model. What happens in an abridged fiscal year will not change our long-term strategy.” He added, “It is so amazing to me to see this kind of engagement and passion about a library.”

The Library⁳ Perfect Storm

While the decision to decrease funding for the Library for this fiscal was part of overall budgetary reductions necessitated by the long recession, it seems to have been one element in a perfect storm – when a rare combination of circumstances dramatically aggravates a situation. Passion and anger from the City Council, from residents who support the branches and from the mayor added to these winds.

Last March, after the budget with decreased funding for the Library was approved, City Council requested the Library board to appoint a task force to come up with a plan for “”sustainable funding”” for the Library. Then, in what many seemed to take as a dare, aldermen told concerned residents of Evanston, who coalesced into the grass-roots Evanston Public Library Friends, that if the Friends were to raise about $160,000 before Aug. 31, that money would be used to keep the branches open until March 1 of next year.

Within four months, the Friends raised more than the required amount of money, and the branch libraries are to remain open with this funding through the end of the present fiscal year.

The task force presented three models for sustainable funding to the Library board, and on Aug. 4 the board chose the “”Library fund”” model as the middle road between the status quo – under which the City has ultimate control of Library funding and allocation – and two other taxing models: a Library district and a special service district. Under the library fund model, the Library board sets the budget for the Library and directs the City Council to levy that amount.

Reaction from the City Council was swift and for the most part negative, with some aldermen again showing animus toward the branch libraries, others apparently concerned that a portion of their authority – to determine the tax levy and allocations for the Library – had been assumed by the board, and some saying they were concerned that the Library board’s decision would result in an increase in the City’s portion of the property tax. The mayor proposed legislation to establish a “”floor”” for Library funding and tie increases to increases in the General Fund, but neither the City Attorney nor the City Manager has been able to say whether that ordinance is a valid exercise of the City’s home-rule power. 

The mayor may have further aggravated a volatile situation by Sharon Arceneaux to the Library board, a long-time Evanston resident who had financial dealings with Ms. Tisdahl before she was elected mayor. Cook County records show that Ms. Tisdahl purchased the home of Ms. Arceneaux and her husband, James, in 2002 when it was in foreclosure. Ms. Tisdahl then rented it and eventually sold it to Mr. Arceneaux a few years later.

The appointment of Ms. Arceneaux to the Library board was approved unanimously and without discussion by the aldermen on Sept. 13. By e-mail the RoundTable asked Mayor Tisdahl about their prior relationship with Ms. Arceneaux, what Mayor Tisdahl told Council members about her prior relationship with Ms. Arceneaux, and what, if any, conditions were put on that appointment. By e-mail, Mayor Tisdahl responded that there were “”no conditions”” attached to the appointment and that she would “”be happy”” to explain “”why Ms. Arceneaux will be a terrific member of the Library board.”” In a separate e-mail she wrote, “”I bought a house, I rented a house, I sold a house. This is a non-event.””