The Evanston Public Library Board of Trustees has a lot on its plate.
The group just received a proposed strategic plan outlining the ’s core goals through 2014 and is currently operating without a permanent library director (the person who directs staff, manages library services, and advises the board), all while attempting to use its to create a reasonable 2012 budget that both addresses public concern over scarce neighborhood services and doesn’t raise property taxes too high for residents.
How to balance these challenges and in what order to address them were the contentious questions of the divisive, muddled and, at times, heated debate at Wednesday night’s library board meeting.
At next month’s Sept. 21 meeting, the board will vote to adopt a 2012 budget, and while most board members seem content to keep many operating expenditures, and hence library services, comparable to current levels, two budget lines have yet to be agreed upon: whether or not to continue to fund the North Branch and whether or not to create a community engagement librarian position.
Evanston Public Library administrative service manager Paul Gottschalk drew up three budgets reflecting potential scenarios for the coming year.
In one scenario, dubbed the "base budget," the North Branch would remain open, but the library would not hire a community engagement librarian, resulting in a near 4 percent raise of the library’s property tax levy. In another, "Option A," both the North Branch and the engagement librarian position would be funded, resulting in an over 6 percent levy hike. And in the last, "Option B," the new librarian would be hired and the North Branch closed, raising the levy a little under 1 percent.
, Paul Gottschalk said that a 10 percent increase in the library’s tax levy would raise property taxes around $12 annually on a $300,000 home.
Of the six board members present Wednesday night, only Lynette Murphy voiced support for "Option B." However, Murphy’s term expires before next month’s vote.
The real divide among board members was over whether the responsibility to create a new library position should fall to the board or to the library director.
The proposed strategic plan, created from the findings of a half-year study commissioned by the board to better understand community opinions and wants, lists the library board’s top two goal as creating equal library access throughout Evanston and expanding library outreach services.
Proponents of making room in the budget for the hiring of a new community engagement librarian argued that the position was necessary to make an honest attempt at achieving these goals.
Board member Ben Schapiro said that the Evanston library system was already behind the curve when it came to library services, and that putting off such a decision for another year would only further this trend.
“The library needs to move in a certain direction and certain positions are required to enable us to do be able to move in that direction,” Schapiro said. “What is in this proposed strategic plan are things we need to do but are not things that are new to librarianship, which to me, means that we’re falling behind in serving our public already and have a lot of catching up to do.”
Other board members argued that the board’s role is limited to determining the strategic vision for the library, saying that the responsibility to create new positions and manage day-to-day operations falls to the library director and that the board should wait to create the position until they can consult a permanent director.
“I have no problem with the position at some point in time,” said board member Gail Bush. “But I feel that we need leadership from within the library, from somebody who is experienced and knows, who is a professional library director, to come in and look at the strategic plan…and move accordingly. But to go to the City Council now with a new position like that, I can’t agree with that today.”
Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, making a rare appearance at Wednesday’s board meeting, also called upon the board to maintain current funding levels with minimal changes to the 2012 library budget.
“I don’t think it’s good for the library, good for the community, good for the city, to move forward in a vacuum,” Bobkiewicz said, “not recognizing that a key element of any change in the operation of the library is the director. We can use the opportunity of hiring a new director as the catalyst to bring to conclusion some of these issues that have been discussed for going on two years.”
The Evanston Public Library lost its previous library director, Mary Johns, when she resigned last month to take a position in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Since then, Lesley Williams has filled in as “acting library director,” and next week, Donna Dziedzic will assume the position of “interim library director” under a six month contract with the possibility for a three month extension while the board searches for a full-time replacement.
But finding a new library director can be difficult, so much so that Bobkiewicz offered the city’s assistance in hiring a firm that specializes in recruiting directors for library systems.
Board member Susan Stone said that nine months was too long to wait, and though she acknowledged that the board will have three weeks with the new interim director before they have to pass the budget, she added that providing funding for the community engagement librarian was necessary, as others employees could not adequately fill this role in the already financially-stretched library system.
During his short address, Bobkiewicz also seemed to suggest that the board might be better off opting to wait another year to officially adopt a library fund model. Though the library board voted to adopt the new model a year ago, and though the Evanston City Council unofficially approved their decision, an ordinance has yet to be passed making it official. However, the choice of whether or not to go ahead with the change lies solely with the library board.
A decision to revert to the previous model, in which library funding came from the City and the City Council had to approve the library’s budget, would alleviate some current problems, including potentially underfunded operating and capital reserves, and the necessity for the library to borrow City funds for the first several months of operation while it waits for its share of property tax revenue.
No board member addressed Bobkiewicz’s suggestion.
with the City of Evanston and the subsequent relationship determined by that document were not discussed at Wednesday’s meeting
The Evanston library board is scheduled to reconvene Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Main Branch.