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At both the Nov. 20 and Nov. 27 City Council meetings, some aldermen seemed concerned about the Library’s proposed $11 million renovation and its proposed 8.6% increase in its operating budget. At least one alderman appeared to express dismay over the Library branch proposed for the new Robert Crown Center.
The renovation project would take about 18 months to complete and would be funded by General Obligation bonds that would be repaid in part by the City and in part by the Library.
On Nov. 20, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons whether there was any “flexibility” in the Library’s capital plans “or do we have to do everything all at once?”
Ms. Lyons said the renovation is an 18-month project and that delays or deferments could end up costing the City more. “We are looking to use as much [current] furniture as we can, and we’re using carpeting that’s been in storage for 23 years. I understand the tension and will continue to work with the architect,” she said.
Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said, “I would ask the Library not to do the full scope of their work. I’m concerned about the Shore School building [on Church Street at McDaniel Avenue, now vacant], and parks, and tuck-pointing at the Service Center. I would ask the Library to delay major construction and let us do Robert Crown.”
Ald. Fleming’s request did not receive support among the other aldermen on Nov. 20, and Council gave verbal consent to move forward with the Capital Improvements Plan, which includes both the Crown Center and Library renovations projects.
A week later, though, Council’s mood appeared to have toughened. On Nov. 27, discussion of the Library’s funding requests intermingled and at times seemed to conflate the capital and the operating budgets.
Sixth Ward Alderman Tom Suffredin said, “I support the Library’s mission and staff, but I have a problem with the Board. I will be voting ‘No.’”
Ald. Fiske said she did not believe she could support the 8.6% increase in operations because she had received emails from her constituents objecting to it. “There are people who are really hurting. I just wish there was some way to present this better.”
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “Libraries are a contact point – an entry point to services – for some people. We obviously don’t just provide books; it’s a place where people avail themselves of services. … How many conversations have we had about equity and fairness? The fact is, we haven’t made a full commitment to that. [If we don’t support the Library], we’re not making a commitment to all the community. I’d like for us to be assertive and get this stuff done.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said there is a feeling that the Library is out of control, with branches in the north and south end of town and one contemplated for the new Robert Crown Center. If the Library did not spend so much money on building maintenance, she said, there would be more money for operations.
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she knew of people who were donating money to the new Robert Crown Center “because they have a library. They’re not interested in sports.” She added, “I very strongly support this project. We do so much with relatively little resources.”
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said, “My son probably spends more time in the public library than in any other City facility in town.” He voiced support for the Library’s requests.
Ms. Lyons suggested issuing the GO bonds serially rather than all at once. Assistant City Manager/Chief Financial Officer Martin Lyons told the RoundTable, “The issuance of bond proceeds can be structured to meet construction payment dates. For example, if the project is phased over two years then the bonds can be issued over two years. This does not have a major impact on a 20-year debt service tax levy. If the bonds are issued over two years, the debt service tax levy will still be at 100% of the impact to taxpayers in the year after the Library is renovated and therefore the impact on taxpayers in negligible over the 20-year time frame to repay the debt. In other words, phasing can help with budgeting, but not with the total burden on tax payers. For a $10 million project phased over two years at $5 million a year, the tax levy will be approximately $350,000 for phase one and another $350,000 for year two, for a total of $700,000 for approximately 20 years. In short, phasing the project does not phase the tax burden except in year 1 and year 21 of the debt service.”
Because the Library’s operating and capital budgets are part of the City’s overall budget, final approval is expected at the Dec. 11 City Council meeting.