Two issues that should be uniting our community are threatening to rend its spirit: funding for branch libraries and the hiring of local contractors to work on the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP2). Both should be addressed as forthrightly as possible. Here are our thoughts on each of those matters.
First, NSP2: The City applied for a grant of $41 million in federal funds earmarked to address the ravages left by the storm of foreclosures across the country. We received $18 million, more than any other municipality in Illinois. To receive the grant, the City says, it had to select a private partner with a track record of constructing and managing large developments. The City selected Brinshore Development because it felt the company had a good track record in affordable housing.
The development package – purchasing and rehabbing 100 vacant and foreclosed homes to be resold at affordable prices – has two local hiring components, one mandated by the City and one by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Still, several local contractors are on edge – many of them minority-owned or Evanston-based, or both – saying they fear they will not be hired to help restore their own community. Delays in readying bid packages, misunderstanding of the way the grant is to be administered and the role of the City and its private partner have led to suspicion and accusations on the part of some of the contractors. On Monday night residents again voiced their concerns about these issues.
We sense that City officials feel they have responded to many of these concerns by holding meetings about the possibility of work, meeting with representative of the Evanston Black Business Association and posting online a clarification of the City’s position. Further, we believe that City officials are committed to doing everything they can to promote local hiring.
Within a few days, contractors will have proposed bids for the first round of NSP2 work, so time will reveal whether these concerns have materialized into problems. In the medium- and long-term, we hope that the parties will continue to talk. Understanding about the promises and the limitations of NSP2 funds will surely help, as will a review of how Brinshore and the City plan to leverage the existing funds for these projects. Keeping lines of communication open is essential to finding a way to move forward.
And now for the branch libraries: It is unfortunate that such a basic and essential service that is intended to provide a source of education and access to the world at large has become a font of divisiveness here.
As we see it, some people want the branches closed; others do not, and rhetoric is replacing reason in the discussion. There are several voices in this discussion: the City Council, the Library Board, the Evanston Public Library Friends and residents with a range of feelings about library services.
Earlier this year, City Council directed the Library Board to come up with a model for sustainable funding for the branches. The task force hoped to find federal or state grants, rather than having to resort to the same local pot of money. Unable to find that source, the task force recommended three funding models to the Library Board, and the Library Board voted unanimously in August to follow the state Local Library Act and create a library fund over which it – not the City Council – would have exclusive control.
Some Council members appear to resent this action. If the City Council thinks that its home-rule powers can trump the State statute, then it should take action soon to reassert their authority. If this is not the case – and the Library Board is to be an autonomous entity – then the City Council should respect the Board it has approved and the powers given to the Board by State statute.
We applaud City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz for acknowledging the importance of library services, particularly the need to enhance collections: books, magazines and periodicals. Still, we think the City can go further and find a way to fund the two branches for another year.
There is enough passion in the community and enough need for those services to do so. Not only would we like to see the North and South branches funded for five days of operations for the next year, we would like to see a branch established in the Fifth Ward as soon as possible and see plans continue for a branch in the Robert Crown Center. The Crown Center branch appears now only in tentative plans for a new community center, but we would encourage the City to pursue plans for a branch library there, independent of possible new construction.
Supporters of the branch libraries have pointed to the fact that they provide access to books and to computers, things that many households lack. They also afford students a quiet, safe place to study and ready help for information about how to tackle many a homework problem.
Supporters have also pointed to studies that show that library branches act as economic engines, and the City is looking to enhance development on the West Side, particularly along Dodge Avenue in the business districts at Church and at Dempster streets. Thus the City should consider funding branch libraries, existing and future, through the Economic Development Committee or tax-increment financing (TIF) funds.
There is not much time before the new budget will be approved, but we hope that the City Manager and other high-level City staff members, City Council members and resident groups will spend the time trying to mend fences and reach workable solutions.
Libraries and library services are too important to all the residents of this community to be turned into a source of divisiveness.
Both the issues of library funding and local hiring on the NSP2 project need to be addressed quickly and forthrightly so we can all get along with the business of living in our wonderful City.