In a dramatic, surprise conclusion to a long discussion and even-longer controversy, the Evanston City Council late Wednesday night apparently ended its lead role in the Evanston libraries debate by voting 7-2 to accept the City Manager's proposed 2011 budgetary amount for the library system but let the Library Board administer that budget, without the Council dictating either that the neighborhood branches close or that they remain open. What this means is that decisions on the branches (and most other facets of library operation) during FY2011 will be in the hands of the 9-person Library Board, a semi-autonomous commission that exists under state law and is appointed by the mayor with consent of the Council. Remarks of Council and the City Manager also signaled no intent to go to war with the Library Board over future budgeting by way of the Library Fund, the mechanism by which Illinois public libraries set their tax levy.
Dollar Difference Was Small, Branch Dispute Large
Both the Library Board and the Council have been working with creating 10-month budgets for March through December, 2011, as they shift to a calendar-based fiscal year rather than the March-to-February fiscal years of the past; this will remove the heavy budget sessions from the holiday season, a burden on Council, staff, and public. The Library Board had submitted a 10-month budget to the Council totaling a little over $3.9 million. By comparison, in 2009-10, the City Manager's proposed library expenditures on a 10-month basis would have been a little over $4.23 million. So the current Library Board proposal, which would have allowed restoration of one day of service per week at the neighborhood branches, still represented an 8% decrease.
The City Manager this year proposed a library budget with 10-month expenditures of $3,756,051, only $148,000 less than the Library Board's proposal. However, it included no funds for the neighborhood branches, i.e., closing them. This upset library advocates who understandably thought that the successful fundraising the Council had asked them to undertake, along with the overwhelming support for the neighborhood branches and the library system demonstrated during the budget workshop process, would result in a budget that laid the matter to rest for at least some time.
Outcome of Meeting Was Uncertain
Going in, most Council observers, including some Council members, could not say how the matter would resolve. Aldermen Melissa Wynne (3rd) and Jane Grover (7th), in whose wards the neighborhood branches reside, had generally expressed support for their continued existence, although Wynne suggested that a location on Main might make more sense for the South Branch, which suffers from old physical plant and ADA non-compliance, and is located on a very busy stretch of Chicago Avenue. Ald. Mark Tendam (6th), representing a northwest Evanston ward that has no library or community center, but where many residents patronize the North Branch and Central Street, had been a vocal supporter of the neighborhood branches.
By contrast, Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) and Coleen Burrus (9th) had consistently bashed the neighborhood branches and their supporters; although the South Branch is the closest library for almost all 8th and 9th Ward residents, it is still too far for many in too walk, especially from southwest Evanston. Similarly, Ald. Delores Holmes (5th), representing a ward where the West Side neighborhood branch was opened and then shuttered in the 1970s, had indicated many months ago that funding existing branches was not a budget priority, as had Ald. Don Wilson (4th). That left most branch supporters and observers looking to Alds. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2d) and Judy Fiske (1st), who had supplied votes a year earlier on the compromise to keep the branches open provided the Evanston Public Library Friends came up with 6 months' funding. However, neither had committed going into Wednesday's meeting; FIske, while expressing support for the branches as drivers of neighborhood small business economies, had concerns that the Library Board if given discretion would cut hours or collections for the Main Branch, heavily used by many 1st Ward residents.
Special Tax Idea Hits Snags
Fiske opened the discussion by moving that the City fund the branches with Economic Development money through 2011, while either exploring or "moving toward" Special Service Areas ("SSAs") as a funding mechanism. An SSA imposes an additional property tax surcharge on property-owners in a defined area, to be directed toward specific "special services." The mechanism is most common for new developments requiring substantial infrastructure; in Evanston, the existing SSA taxes downtown business property-owners to promote downtown business.
FIske's proposal, if passed, would have kept the branches afloat for as much as another year; whether the SSAs would ever have materialized is debatable. With Jean-Baptiste and Grover signaling willingness to at least entertain it as a compromise, initial appearance was that this was a 5-vote solution. However, the more the idea was discussed, the more objections surfaced, ranging from the divisive effect of making some residents pay for services that all can use, to the delay and uncertainty involved in the SSA creation process (which requires notices, hearings, possible citizen objection, and a levy that would not be collected until 2012), to arguments by branch opponents that the can would just be kicked down the road. The motion, amended once or twice, was finally called and failed 2-7, with only Jean-Baptiste joining Fiske.
Holmes Triggers Quick Resolution
During the wide-ranging discussion following Fiske's motion, which veered periodocally off the parliamentary pathway, and included an amendment to tap an unearthed City Manager reserve fund rather than Economic Development funds, Grover had urged that the Council defer to the Library Board, and pass a budget but not micro-manage decisions such as branch operations. Citizen comment, as it had two days earlier, had included remarks by a Board member, in this case Dr. Gail Bush, a respected library professional with impressive credentials. Grover echoed Bush's citation of the state law clause that requires the Board to exercise its duties to maximize library benefit for residents and taxpayers.
Following the failure of Fiske's motion, Holmes, who had been largely silent during the discussion, was recognized by Mayor Tisdahl. Saying that she was heartened to hear that the Board was committed to expanding library services to reach all residents better, something she had always wanted, and that she was herself someone who loved to read, Holmes indicated agreement with Grover's idea of letting the Board manage the library funds.
At that point Rainey surprised most in the room and watching on cable by making a motion to do exactly that; the budget amount would be what the City Manager had proposed, but the Library Board would decide how to use it. The motion was swiftly seconded and, after Grover clarified that the action did not require closing the branches (nor keeping them open), passed on a 7-2 vote, with Fiske and Burrus the minority. The gallery, consisting largely of branch supporters, erupted in cheers.
Trying to figure out why the Council does what it does is a task that might confound an old Kremlinologist. A typical observer,even a longstanding one, might be befuddled why Rainey, a persistent opponent of the neighborhood branches, who even that evening had forefully reiterated her longstanding feeling that the South Branch was little-used and should close, would initiate what some might see as a delegation of authority to a Board that had earlier passed a budget (by 7-1 vote) that would maintain the neighborhood branches. Rainey's action, however, was smart politics.
Holmes's statement signaled that Grover's position had five votes. Any good poker player knows when you hold and when you fold. Rainey's motion pre-empted a branch supporter from so moving, and limited the amount delegated to the Library Board to a sum $150,000 short of what the Board felt was needed to keep the branches open and restore some hours.
Rainey, however, had also expressed the fatigue that many on both sides of the debate feel at its prolonged, emotional nature. A 7-2 vote is far less divisive or likely to rankle than a 5-4 squeaker. Rainey deserves some credit for a move that will accelerate much-needed healing in the community.
The Near Future and Beyond
The challenge now falls to the Library Board to figure out what to do with a budget $148,000 less than even the reduced sum it had requested. Much previous testimony before the Council had demonstrated how Evanston spends much less on its libraries than neighboring communities, altho the contribution of the City to overhead was never fully calculated. During the discussion of Fiske's SSA motion, the idea of tapping some less-apparent reserves in the budget seemed to have some support, and had Rainey's motion not passed so swiftly, an amendment to tap some of those might have been in order.
However, despite their weariness at nearly a year of this drama, the Evanston Public Library Friends still exist as a likely ally willing to pitch in to help fill the gap, and the Board's budget, it must be remembered, actually represented some increase in branch hours. Raising the funds to continue operation at at least the existing service levels is not insurmountable. The initial expectation is that the Board and library advocates will bend their energies toward solutions that will not hamstring any branch, including the Main.
The most important development in the evening was the repeated indication by City representatives that the use of a Library Fund per Illinois statute was something the City could live with. A few days earlier, the Library Board had devoted a half-day to explaining how that would work, complete with a presentation by Des Plaines's former library director on that city's experience in cooperation. While the Fund rollout in August had provoked strong reaction and hasty accusations of "usurpation" or a tax grab, cooler minds seem to have since prevailed. What hundreds of other Illinois municipalities deal with, Evanston can surely deal with as well.
The apparent City-Board detente for 2011 also means that the Board and library supporters can begin long-overdue long-range planning, including addressing the legitimate concerns of citywide equity in libraries location. It is more than likely that, ultimately, this will require additional funding commitments down the road. However, one advantage of the Library Fund administrative model is that it will be far easier for Evanstonians to see what is spent or not spent on libraries, and why, and what it costs us. A $4M budget is more than a drop in the bucket, but it's only a small pail compared to the overall spending of City and the two school districts, which top $400 million combined. Dollar per dollar, libraries deliver enormous bang for the buck, preserving both knowledge and culture while advancing some our most cherished values and ideals.
Video of the budget discussion is on the City website at http://www.cityofevanston.org/city-budget/video/ The library discussion begins at approx 1:31 in and lasts a little over an hour, until 2:40. -- Jeff Smith