City eyes special tax districts for library branches

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the mayor’s budget task force Tuesday that city staff is exploring the possibility of creating special taxing districts so that neighbors of Evanston’s branch libraries would pay for them.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the mayor’s budget task force Tuesday that city staff is exploring the possibility of creating special taxing districts so that neighbors of Evanston’s branch libraries would pay for them.

Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons said the state Special Service Area legislation under which the districts would be created has rarely been used for libraries but there doesn’t seem to be anything in the legislation that would prohibit such a use.

The districts are more often used for economic development and infrastructure projects, as with the downtown special service area in Evanston that’s used to fund the Downtown Evanston marketing and management organization.

Bobkiewicz said officials are also looking at the possibility of a separate city-wide taxing district for the library, but said the more targeted taxing district seems to be "the cleanest way" to address the problem.

Lyons said it will cost more if a separate library district is created, based on his experience in other communities.

Supporters of a separate district, "after swearing up and down that it won’t cost more," Lyons said, will find that a separate district adds duplication of administrative costs.

"The first cost is $50,000 for an accounting system, then money to hire an accountant or bookkeeper," Lyons added. It’s not mismanagement, he said, just that those things and more are needed to run a separate district well.

None of those costs would be required for a Special Service Area because it would be run by the existing city administration.

"There hasn’t been a groundswell saying the library now is mismanaged," Bobkiewicz said, "My sense is it would get overly complicated to have separate management."

If the City Council decides to use the Special Service Area approach, it may be difficult for taxpayers in the affected areas to resist the move.

The state legislation governing establishment of the districts requires that a majority of all property owners and all registered voters in the district sign petitions objecting to its creation within a 60-day period in order to stop its formation.

Lyons said the added tax bill for such a district would be dependent on the size of the area included within it, which would need to be worked out based on data showing where most current patrons of the branches live.

But he said that as a formula for thinking about the cost, if the budget for a branch was $250,000 and properties in the proposed district had an assessed value of $100 million, the city could set a tax rate of 0.25 percent to cover the budget. If there were 1,000 properties in the district, making the average assessed value $100,000, then the cost per year for the average homeowner would be $250.

Members of the mayor’s budget task force were divided on the merits of the special service area concept.

Aleks Granchalek said he was concerned about the negative option or "reverse referendum" approach required of taxpayers objecting to formation of the district.

Raymond Summers said that, given the different levels of wealth in different parts of town, some neighborhoods might opt to pay for a branch library while others wouldn’t feel they could afford one.

Jeanne Lindwall said a special service area would make sense because libraries serve as an anchor for the business districts in which the are located, giving a reason for business owners as well as residents to be part of the taxing district.

But Lou English objected to any tax increase at a time of such financial strain. "I live in Northwest Evanston," he said. With the kids going in and out of the bakeries and the good business other merchants are doing, English said, "the Central Street corridor will thrive without the library."

Granchalek said he said he has a hard time believing the South Branch is an economic engine for its shopping district.

English said, "We have a beautiful main library downtown. In a town of just eight square miles that’s easily accessible given our transportation system, let’s face it, kids can walk to the main library."

And Candace Hill said, "Skokie does fine with one library. Wilmette does just fine with one. The only thing is that over the generations some people in Evanston have gotten a real attachment to the branches."

Former alderman Steven Engleman, noting that the branch libraries have been a hot-button issues for decades and the task force’s primary task is to look a long range budget issues, suggested that the group shouldn’t take a stand on the branch libraries and just offer information to the City Council.

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