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The newly independent Evanston Public Library Board approved its fiscal year 2011 budget at a special meeting on Dec. 8. The result: Main Branch will be fully funded at the 2010 level of service, albeit with a slashed acquisition budget; North Branch will be funded for the first six months only; and South Branch will close on Feb. 28, 2011 (or as Board President Christopher Stewart prefers, “be in transition” as of that date). Since the City has already canceled the South Branch lease, keeping the South Branch open at its current location was simply not an option.

The board and observers, packed into a small storytelling room because of scheduling conflicts with the main meeting room, faced a difficult decision from the outset. “We did not get the budget [from City Council] that this body resolved in October,” said Dr. Stewart. Instead, the budget, already bare-bones as approved by the Board, came in about $150,000 short. After funding the Main Library, as Dr. Stewart said the Board had committed to do at a cost of about $3.57 million, just under $149,000 remained for the branches. According to a report provided by library administrator Paul Gottschalk, funding the North Branch at 2010 levels would cost about $170,000. Fiscal Year 2011 will be a shortened 10 month period due to the City’s shift to a calendar year fiscal year.

The Board was testy from the start. Board member Gail Bush disputed the assertion that Main Branch should be fully funded, while saying she did not have enough information to make a decision about the branches. “Is Main [Library] funding non-negotiable?” she asked. “I’m not taking anything off the table.”

Board member Diane Allen disagreed that the board did not have enough information, saying board members had been wrestling with the same budgetary numbers for months. “We have a competent staff,” she added, “These numbers are real. … We need to look at what we have and allocate.” The Library Board is in transition, she added, as the impact of voting to becoming a taxing body will filter through during the coming year.

The line-item term used on budget documents to fund the branches, “neighborhood services,” caused consternation and confusion. As several people, including Library Director Mary Johns, pointed out, staff from the Main Branch conducts such neighborhood outreach as school readings. At least one Main Branch staff member does nothing but projects outside of the library and in the neighborhoods. Yet that staff member’s salary is paid out of the Main Branch budget, not “neighborhood services.”

Ms. Bush asked for an accounting of the allocation of the Main Branch budget that goes to outreach projects. Ms. Johns said such a segregation of service costs would be difficult if not impossible.

According to Mr. Gottshalk’s report, the amount left after funding the Main Branch would still be about $21,000 short of the cost of fully funding the North Branch at 2010 service levels. The board could fund the North Branch for nine of ten months or cut one day of service, he said, and still fit within budget. If they chose to fund for nine months, the final month could be paid for from any of a number of sources, such as Book Sale proceeds, the endowment or privately raised funds.

Board member Susan Stone proposed dedicating neighborhood services funds to the North Branch only. Donna Gerson, Lynette Murphy and Ms. Bush all protested vehemently, saying they were unwilling to leave nothing at all for the South Branch. Concern over the message being sent to the public – that the north side deserved a branch while the South Branch would close – torpedoed the proposal, and it failed, 5-4.

President Stewart then proposed a compromise – funding the North Branch for six months, then leaving the remaining neighborhood services funds uncategorized and to be distributed during the year as needed. The funds will be used to effectuate the South Branch “transition” and for other neighborhood projects.

  The compromise passed 7-1, with Ms. Stone abstaining. The overall budget then passed 7-2.

Dr. Stewart appeared nostalgic and pensive after the vote. He said, “We are closing a library today, and that’s serious business.” He then appointed a committee to work on the transition of South as the board expects hundreds of questions over the coming months.

The Fate of the South Branch

The Evanston Public Library’s South Branch, which has been open since the Woodrow Wilson administration, will close its doors at the end of February 2011. With no lease and no new location selected, the books and furniture will be relocated or sold off and the lights turned off for good at the Chicago Avenue location.

The next step is far from certain. Lobbying has begun for a relocation to the West Side, and several speakers stepped forward Wednesday night to suggest Evanston Plaza at Dempster and Dodge as a potential site. Suggestions for funding included TIF funds, community development block grant (CDBG), economic development money and a capital campaign.

One thing became clear: Nearly everyone who attended Wednesday’s meeting would like a branch library within walking distance of home. That fact was not lost on board members Susan Stone and Sharon Arceneaux, who both said that it simply was not possible for everyone to be that close to a branch.

A proposal by State Senator Jeff Schoenberg, first brought forth over the summer, to co-locate a branch library with a new, smaller state unemployment office (IDES), resurfaced. The Evanston IDES office on Oak Avenue near Davis Street shut its doors earlier this month, so now the closest offices are in Arlington Heights or on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago.

The state would want a location that did not require much build-out, was far smaller than the Oak Avenue space, and in which they would be tenant rather than landlord, said Library Board member Gail Bush, who along with Donna Gerson met with the senator recently. Rent would be paid via federal pass-through, said Susan Newman, so there would be no worry about the State of Illinois and its lateness in bill-paying.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl suggested the current Evanston Township offices at Main and Dodge as a possible South Branch location. The City is discussing a possible move of Township offices back to the Civic Center, leaving space available. When someone asked about a lack of parking, Ms. Gerson replied, “”Any place has more parking than the current South Branch.””