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Library Board Doesn't See Eye to Eye in ‘Understanding’ with City

Evanston's autonomous Library Board of Trustees faces new challenges and an altered connection to the city as it plans its fiscal year 2012 budget.

Starting next year, Evanston’s Library Board of Trustees will act as an autonomous governing body after adopting a new library fund model last September. But with self-governance comes new financial and political challenges, the details of which the board discussed and debated at Wednesday night’s board meeting.

Amid both fiscal year 2012 and long-term planning processes, the board is remapping its relationship with the city by creating a “memorandum of understanding” between the two entities and determining how the new library fund model will finance capital improvement projects without relying on city-issued bonds.

With its the library board can levy a tax as a percentage of the money the city collects from property taxes, setting the level depending on what the board determines are its budgetary needs. The current levy is set at .128 percent, though the board can legally raise it as high as .23 percent.

However, the new model also means that library concerns will no longer have the same consideration under the city’s Capital Improvement Program or the corresponding access to its general obligation bonds, though the city could conceivably still issue debt on the library’s behalf.

The $375,000 needed for proposed North Branch renovations, the $15,000 required to fix the Main Branch’s electrical system (in response to several recent power outages at that location), the $12,000 it would take to fix a leak in the Main Branch’s third floor roof and funding for many other proposed capital improvement projects now must come in whole from within the library’s budget, a notion that perturbed some board members who felt the city was passing on the bill on a disregarded burden.

“So this is the same city that let the property at the North Branch go that we are now paying for?” asked board member Gail Bush.

Other debate centered around the memorandum of understanding, a four-page document spelling out the new nature of the relationship between the library board and the city.

Contentious portions of the proposed agreement include a section that unilaterally provides the ability to terminate the contract only to the City Council and a section that gave Evanston’s city manager the power to “appoint, employ and direct” the board’s library director, who serves as an adviser and supervisor to the board. Currently, the library director is appointed by the city, but under the adopted Local Library Act, the library legally assumes the responsibility.

The contract, which would expire in two years, is not final as written and the board had already created several proposed changes. But several board members were upset by the idea of conceding some control back to the city.

Part of the problem is that under the library fund model, the board would not receive funding for FY2012 until taxes had been collected, potentially leaving the library without funding for a few months during the first year. Under the memorandum of understanding, the city would agree to lend the operational funds during this gap, but board members said they felt the city was also using the offer as a bargaining chip.

“It feels like bully tactics,” said Bush. “I think that the personnel matters are extremely important.”

“The consequences,” responded board member Diane Allen, “are that we try to become a library fund with no city support, no loan from the city. They don’t have to do it”

“So we have to make nice?” asked Board Member Susan Stone.

“You betcha,” said Allen.

After the meeting, Paul Gottschalk, administrative service manager for the Evanston Public Library, said that he did not believe the city would allow the library to simply shut down, regardless of any power struggle. Some board members seemed willing to chalk up the concessions as acceptable, but only during the two-year transition proposed in the agreement.

Next month, the library board will vote to approve the FY2012 budget. During citizen comment, two Evanston Public Library Friends members demanded that the board use its new levying power to restore or better fund recently-stripped neighborhood services.

At the end of the night’s meeting, Board President Christopher Stewart announced that he was stepping down as a trustee after serving six years, citing conflicting personal and professional commitments. Board member Susan Newman will serve as acting president until board member Sharon Arceneaux assumes the post in the fall.

The next Library Board of Trustees meeting is scheduled for July 20 at 6 p.m. in the Evanston Public Library’s Main Branch. 

Diane R. Johnson June 16, 2011 at 04:49 PM
"The $375,000 needed for proposed North Branch renovations" WHAT!!!????? I thought the north branch was only going to be funded through 2011. Apparently I missed something here.
Jordan Graham June 16, 2011 at 10:12 PM
Hi Diane, That number is not representative of what the board will likely spend on the branch, that is, if they choose to keep the North Branch around. That figure represents what it would take to repair some elements of the North Branch and overhaul others. At last night's meeting, the board discussed how at any given time, the City can identify $100 million worth of capital improvement projects around town, but that they prioritize them to spend about a tenth of that annually. The library board, as an autonomous governing body, will likely follow a similar procedure, by identifying all potential capital improvement projects, and then selecting which they think are most deserving of library funding. But as you wrote above, the North Branch is currently only funded through the end of 2011. We will learn at the library board's July meeting whether it will continue to receive funding in 2012.
Beth McGuire June 17, 2011 at 04:39 PM
I have a correction - Sharon Arceneaux starts her term as Evanston Public Library Board of Trustees next month, July, 2011.

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