"Bookends” sculpture by Richard Hunt on the Main Library                 RoundTable photo

The Evanston Public Library’s tax levy passed City Council by a 7-2 vote at the Dec. 1 City Council meeting. The vote was required because the amount of the levy exceeded the maximum library levy permitted under State law. Evanston’s home rule status allows the City to go above the state limit, but only if City Council approves.

The new library tax levy represents an increase of more than $700,000 over last year’s levy of $5.13 million. The increase will cover, primarily, growing health insurance costs for employees mandated by the Affordable Care Act and growing acquisition costs, according to several members of the Library Board and budget documents. In prior years, when City Council controlled the Library’s budget, the budget decreased and acquisitions suffered.

The increases are necessary, said Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, “to bring our library up to snuff.” Evanston spends far less, on a per-resident basis, for its library than neighboring communities even after the increase.

The levy was on the Council’s Nov. 24 agenda, but on a motion by Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward and seconded by Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, the measure was held pending further discussion. An attempt to overrule the hold failed by 5-4 vote. A two thirds majority, or six votes, is required to overrule a hold. The matter was set for consideration during a special meeting one week later, Dec. 1.

At the Dec. 1 meeting, comments from the public overwhelmingly supported the Library, with speaker after speaker praising the Library’s good work. Library Board chair Michael Tannen called the evening “an EPL love fest all around.” He told the RoundTable, “I am so gratified that so many of our partners came out in force and eloquently showed how the Library is an integral part of Evanston’s’ social fabric and its safety net.”

Over the two meetings, Library supporters included Tiffany Rice, mother of slain youth Dajae Coleman and chair of the foundation started in his name. “As a victim of youth violence, I never would have expected a public library to be an ally” the way EPL became, she told City Council.

David Marzahl, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Economic Progress (CEP), an organization that assists those below the poverty level in preparing income tax returns, praised the Library for its partnership in providing space. While CEP helped prepare 168 tax returns in 2013, once they moved into the Library space they were able to prepare 405 returns and bring $415,000 back to Evanston residents, said Mr. Marzahl.

Others speaking including local attorney Jessica Oldani of Next Chapter Evanston, a group assisting entrepreneurs in starting businesses, Andi Drilick of Nation Able Network, helping the unemployed find work using library space, Kristin James of the PTA Council and Diane Allen of Oakton Community College’s English as a Second Language program.

Local activist Joan Hickman said the “Library went through a rough patch” in dealing with the African American community, “but they have mended their ways.” She went on to praise the library, employees Connie Heneghan and Lesley Williams in particular. “I am serious – about giving Connie Heneghan a raise,” she said.

No one in citizen comment spoke against the proposed Library levy.

Nevertheless, the two aldermen remained opposed.

Ald. Rainey said, “There wasn’t a speaker tonight” who presented a program [that]”I don’t support and wouldn’t fund. But now is not the time to ask for an additional $800,000.” She said she believed the increase should be incremental and not 15% at once.

On Nov. 24, Ald. Rainey suggested that Evanston does not need a superior library because residents could simply look elsewhere. “This Library is not an island,” she said. “You can go to Skokie. You can go to Northwestern. You can go online” and get any book or resource you want. Evanston need not fund a “fine” library.

Ald. Burrus attacked the Library Board for being out of touch with the poor in Evanston. “The Library Board cares about the Library and not the whole of Evanston,” she said. A week earlier, she said the Library Board views the issue narrowly as an unelected, appointed body while the elected City Council had to view issues broadly.

She attacked the Library Board as unrepresentative of the community as a whole, and leafing through biographies provided to her by Mr. Tannen counted 18 university-level degrees among the Board. A week earlier, she said she “checked addresses” of the Board members, and “only one resides in an area abutting a Community Development Block Grant area.” Socioeconomically, she said, the Board is out of touch. “An extra $25 to $100 annually is very hard” for some Evanston property owners, she said.

Referring to Bureau of Labor Statistics data she pulled up on the Council dais, Ald. Burrus said over a lifetime a person with two degrees, on average, makes $4.4 million, and $2.5 million with one degree. Per capita spending on libraries “is interesting,” she said, because it does not take into account other Evanston spending on social services.

The Library Board should not “stuff their own purse and not understand that it’s hurting others in the community,” she concluded.

Mr. Tannen said, “The vitriol and personal attacks have to stop. The bully pulpit should not be used to bully volunteers.” The Library Board is an unpaid, wholly volunteer organization.

Lori Keenan, of the Library Friends and board member of the Dajae Coleman Foundation, speaking at citizen comment said the debate “borders on class-baiting,” and was “insulting to volunteers.” People should not be judged by where they live or the car they drive, she said.

The two recalcitrant aldermen stood alone. Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, praised the Library budget. “It’s honest,” he said, moving toward a pay-as-you-go philosophy in which infrastructure and maintenance are not delayed, deferred or paid for with borrowed money, but addressed as need arises. “It’s a thoughtful budget,” he said.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, praised the Library’s outreach efforts in that ward. He calculated the increase to equal about $25 a year, or just over $2 per month, for the median Evanston home assessed at $360,000.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who appoints members of the Library Board subject to Council approval, defended her board decisions as diverse and representative of all of Evanston. She urged Council to approve the budget.

In the end, they did, by a 7-2 vote. Council chamber erupted in applause.