Evanston Review

Editorial: City library deserves better funding source

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Read-aloud-to-children advocate and author Jim Trelease writes that a community's free lending library is arguably its "most treasured cultural asset." Evanston residents should embrace his assertion and support the Evanston Public Library Board's plan to adopt a funding model that offers the best option for providing a stable revenue source for that cultural asset.

Perhaps the Illinois General Assembly saw that same value many years ago when it enacted legislation that allows a Library Board to hold exclusive control of all of the money collected for the library. Under the Public Library Fund model, a City Council's role in collecting taxes set by a Library Board is considered "ministerial" and not discretionary.

About half of all public libraries statewide use such a funding model, according to library officials. All one needs to do is visit the impressive Skokie Public Library to see where Evanston's library lags.

In addition to Skokie -- whose residents obviously value education and a public library's role in learning at all stages of one's life -- other communities that employ the Library Fund model include Highland Park, Northbrook, Morton Grove, Lake Forest and Arlington Heights.

A maximum tax rate of 0.20 percent was established for the Evanston Public Library by referendum in 1946. The rate was then increased by another .03 percent by an act of the State Legislature for all public libraries in 1973, making .23 the maximum rate that could be assessed in the General Fund.

The library received about $3.76 million in property taxes from the city toward the library's $4.2 million budget. At the .23 rate, the library could almost double that tax amount.

Library officials say a property tax rate much smaller, .128 percent, would have been needed to support the library's operating budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Based on that rate, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $122 for library services. The $122 is not necessarily additional money taxpayers would pay; it would depend on what the City Council does come budget time.

While the move to a Library Fund model itself won't raise taxes, the change is highly likely to require a shift in other areas of city spending. The more funds the Library Board calls for, the more nonlibrary, municipal spending cuts aldermen will have to make if they want to avoid increasing the city's portion of the property tax. That's why so many aldermen are suspicious of, if not downright hostile to, the board's move.

But just because the Library Board would have the power to levy to the max doesn't mean that it should. Given the current state of the U.S. economy, it's in everyone's best interest to keep the lid on property taxes.

Evanston's "most treasured cultural asset" deserves a more stable funding source. That said, the Evanston Public Library Board must exercise its new funding control judiciously.

Library Board members, who are appointed by the city's mayor with the advice and consent of the aldermen, must work alongside city officials to balance the library's funding needs with those of the city.