For the third year running, members of the city’s Library Board have approved a budget with no tax increase, but the decision did not come easy this time.
Trustees showed an unusual public split on the issue at their Wednesday, November 17 meeting, which was both in-person and virtual.
Some members favored a slight tax increase to support the library’s push for outreach to underserved areas, such as the possibility of establishing a library branch in the city’s Fifth Ward. Others also recognized the need for extra revenues to support those services but questioned the timing of the move.
“I just want us to be realistic and look at this from the lens of the average working individual, some of who have not been working during the pandemic, lost their jobs, are now underemployed,” Library Trustee Esther Wallen said during the discussion. “I think that we need to consider the whole picture – that it can be easy for us to say, ‘OK, this is just a minuscule increase.’ But at the same time, somebody may not be making the same money that they were making beforehand, and I want us to be realistic and looking at that.”
Having recognized during earlier budget discussions that the trustees were split on the issue of increasing the tax, Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons had prepared two resolutions for them to consider at their November 17 meeting: One would keep the property tax flat, as was the case in 2020 and 2021; the other called for a 2% increase on a property tax levy of $7.252 million.
The small increase would generate roughly $150,000 in additional revenue. If approved, the owners of a home with market value of $400,000 would pay an additional $7 in library taxes in their property tax bill, Danczak Lyons estimated.
No ARPA assistance for library
Unlike the City of Evanston, which is proposing no property tax increase, the library does not have $43.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to ease off budget pressures, several trustees noted. The city’s proposed 2022 budget calls for reinstating 29 positions held vacant in the 2021 adopted budget as well as adding 20 new positions.
“I think it’s a lot easier to have a flat levy if you have other income coming in,” said Trustee Shawn Iles, starting off the discussion. “So I guess I would just like to register that I’m concerned that if we go forward with another flat budget, we will fall back much farther behind our neighbors that are better funded.
“I understand why we would consider that, [we’re in] a pandemic and we did that last year,” he said. “But if we do it again then we’re falling two years behind our neighbors.”
Trustee Benjamin Schapiro also recognized the advantage the city has forgoing any tax increase, noting it is “easy to have a flat levy when you have a sizable chunk of cash coming your way with pretty few strings attached to it.”
He said said that, along with Iles’ concerns about the library falling further behind other communities, “We are struggling to catch up with what this community needs in terms of our ability to budget for it. I would hate for us to lose a second year of moving forward on these things, especially now with a pandemic easing and [there being] possibly some chance for a Fifth Ward library – things we need to keep growing, the things that we have been growing.”
“My experience as a library director [in Morton Grove and] in the business is that growth deferred costs more later,” he said. “It would cost us more next year to do what we didn’t do this year and need to do the next year. So slow, steady, incremental growth is generally cheaper than big leaps, and is usually less traumatic for the institution and presents the public with a steady increase in services.”
Effects of the the pandemic
Library Board President Tracy Fulce joined Wallen in expressing concern about the continuing effect of the pandemic.
“I just I think sometimes, this is 2% – it’s very easy for us to see it as, you know, a nominal amount of money,” Fulce said, “but not really thinking that not everyone experiences that 2% in the same way. And that lots of people, as Esther said, lost their jobs in in the pandemic or had to change, or are underemployed or unemployed.”
Trustee Rachel Hayman said, “The amount of money that we’re talking about is very small. If we were having this debate or this discussion about something more tangible, like a Fifth Ward library, I would say, ‘Raise taxes. This is something we need, we’ve promised, it’s time.’”
In this case, Hayman said, while she agrees with the arguments in support of a tax increase, “because of the amount that we’re asking, and because … it’s not going to really make that much difference to our community [I would not support] this increase.”
“I’m not saying that we should never increase; we obviously should,” she said. “But I’m not sure this year is the time.”
Trustee Terry Soto asked about what kind of outreach costs the library is experiencing providing services during the pandemic compared with before, when “there was much less outreach focus.”
“Is that something that we can look at to better help us make a decision and bridge the differences?” she asked.
Wallen emphasized that like Hayman, she wasn’t ruling out supporting some kind of increase in the future.
“I just feel like now is not the right time coming out of a pandemic,” she said, reiterating her concerns about a tax’s impact on those struggling during the pandemic.
“I feel like also … as we are trying to repair our relationship with some members of the community, I think those people who feel that their voices have not been heard, this is our opportunity to say that we hear and recognize the disparity, and that we’re going to acknowledge that and take that under consideration.”
Asked her opinion, Danczak Lyons acknowledged that the trustees faced a “tough” decision on the tax issue.
“In the magnitude of the budget, it’s a small amount, but for the library every dollar is important,” she said.
Currently, the library draws on staff who “are part-time, doing much more than they’re paid to do, as well as full-time staff that do much more than they’re paid to do,” Danczak Lyons said. “And I will say once again, as I have said before, this not a long-term sustainable business model.”
Sensing the library board trustees were split on the issue, Danczak Lyons said she drew up two proposed ordinances. “I’ve never brought two ordinances this way to this body,” she said.
The Board voted 5-4 against the ordinance including the 2% increase.
Voting in support were trustees Iles, Schapiro, Margaret Lurie and Adam Goodman.
Voting against were Russ Sherbet, Fulce, Hayman, Soto and Wallen.
Board members then voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance to go on the November 22 City Council agenda that calls for no increase in the library’s property tax rate.
This story has updated to correct the spelling of a name.