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The Evanston Library Board of Trustees began tackling their next year’s budget on July 20, with one member acknowledging that they were in a sort of “no-man’s land” as they grappled with their long transition into becoming an autonomous governing body.

Nearly a year ago the members of the Library board (some of whom have retired and their positions filled) voted to invoke the state’s Local Library Act and become a discrete fund rather than a department of the City. Under a discrete fund model, the Library Board may set its own budget and direct the City to levy taxes to support that budget.

The City does not recognize that decision as viable under a home-rule community, and Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar has said there is no case law to support either side. The ad hoc group Evanston Public Library Friends, some of whom are lawyers, say they believe the law is on the side of the board.

The Library board has taken steps over the past year to ensure its autonomy, but in doing so appears to be working against the City. The City has drafted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) under which the City would essentially retain control of the Library as if it were still a department of the City.

Some of the sticking points in the MOU were hiring a new library director, approving a budget and coming to a decision about who owns the library building and other property. Should the Board prevail, the Board members, rather than the City Manager or the City Council, would determine the Library’s budget and would hire the new director. That last measure became salient after the last Board meeting, since Director Mary Johns resigned several weeks ago. The City Manager appointed Lesley Williams as acting interim director.

Not all board members were in harmony with the City’s position on these matters.

Gail Bush asked how to effect the transfer of property from the City to the library. “Is there a sale of the property and we purchase it, or is there a transfer of title?” she asked.

Diane Allen said she believed that the City would likely reject the idea of the Library’s owning the building but implied that it was not a point worth fighting over. The Board subsequently voted to go along with the City’s position that the City would own and maintain the real and physical property of the Library.

But Ms. Allen said that the hiring issue was critical “The Board absolutely, firmly, needs to be the party that appoints, hires, disciplines and fires the library director – the library director’s job is to hire, discipline and fire library staff, all of which will be done according to the city’s personnel rules,” she added.

Ms. Bush said that the Board should indeed insist on being able to hire a director, but consider making a provision for the City Manager to be consulted in an advisory manner. The board later voted, however, to keep the original language, maintaining their position that they have authority to hire the new Library director.

Member Margaret Lurie asked whether the Library’s status as a library fund was still an issue. Ms. Allen answered that the City still regarded the library as a City department.

“There is a feeling that this is something that will have to be discussed in City Council,” she added.

Susan Newman acknowledged that the Board was operating in a sort of no-man’s land, but said she believed the Board should proceed according to the library fund model. “We voted for it [and] the City Council voted to allow us to fund for a year … we are going to be working on a budget as if we are [a fund],” she said.

Paul Gottschalk, administrative services manager, presented a “first set of discussion points” for the budget. The proposed budget is about the same as last year’s but prorated for 12 months rather than 10, since fiscal year 2012 will coincide with the calendar year. Although there were no changes in hours or services, the proposal called for about a 4 percent increase in expenses, per the City’s directions.

“For the purposes of discussion tonight, what you’re looking at for the 2012 budget is the current year’s budget, prorated for 12 months, with a 4 percent increase on it,” Mr. Gottschalk said.

The Library’s proposed figures for next year amounted to about $434,000 above last year’s budget and included amounts for capital expenditures and reserves. New board member Benjamin Schapiro, said that the $434,000 figure actually reflected a 9 percent increase over the previous year.

“Bottom line is we’re increasing by more than [the City-mandated] 4 percent,” Mr. Schapiro said. “If we say a number, that number needs to relate to the number that we’re going to use.”

Ms. Allen, apparently referring to the idea that the City still considered the Library a department, said that if the board forwarded a levy that reflected too high an increase, “This entire process will come screeching to a halt, while the City said, ‘This is not prudent and this is not responsible budgeting.’”

But Ms. Stone asked, “But is it or isn’t it? If we can levy it, then they have no right to say no.”

Mr. Schapiro added that, as a library fund, the board faces the political consequences of the levy. “It is not the City’s responsibility then to take a look at our levy ordinance and tell us that it is unacceptable,” he added.

But he said that the Board will nevertheless have to answer to the City one way or another.

“The political reality may be that, if it looks too high, I’m sure that the City Manager, the mayor and every alderperson will be in here or on the phone talking to us about it,” added Mr. Schapiro.

The board will meet again Aug. 17 and 31 to discuss the budget further.