To hear members of Evanston’s Library Board tell it, the library has been unfairly singled out for budget cuts by a City Council that just doesn’t understand the importance of library services. That’s the justification the board now gives for pushing to impose its own tax levy on Evanston residents.

To test that theory, Evanston Now decided to look at how spending levels have changed for various city services over the past nine years.

Why look back nine years? Simply because that was as far back as the data goes that’s available on the budget section of the city’s website.

It turns out that the library has seen its budget increase over those years by more than 12 percent.

It’s not done as well in the competition for budget dollars as some departments, but it has done better than others.

The overall increase in general fund spending — 19.7 percent — has fallen just short of the 21 percent increase in the cost of living during that time.

Looking at the change in spending in absolute dollar terms makes clear that the big winners in the competition for city dollars have been the police and fire departments.

Their combined share of general fund spending has risen from $25.5 million to $34.1 million over the eight year period — the result of a consensus on the City Council that public safety is an essential government function and one that is exceedingly difficult politically to cut. (And that doesn’t include rapidly increasing public safety pension payments, which are not part of the general fund.)

The spending on parks, recreation, forestry, facilities and other programs now grouped under the Parks Department has risen from $12.2 million to $16.8 million. (The 2002-03 number for parks should arguably be a bit higher, because parks has also absorbed some functions that fell under the health department in the past, but it’s difficult to determine just how much to add for that.)

Aldermen have recently beefed up spending on development-related activities — in what’s now called the Community and Economic Development Department — as they’ve concluded that the city needs stronger economic development efforts to help strengthen its economy during economic hard times.

What’s labeled “General services” on the charts encompasses city functions including the City Council itself, the city clerk’s office, the city manager’s office, the legal department and the department now known as Administrative Services, which combines finance, human resources and personnel functions.

Overall, that category of spending has lost ground over the past eight years — but not as much as the Health Department, which has seen its functions reduced and its budget trimmed by nearly 47 percent.

So, have aldermen been unfairly singling out the library for cuts in a time of financial stress on the city’s budget? That’s for you to decide.

Related links

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, we’ve now received copies of the presentations made by members of the Library Board and its sustainable funding task force at their recent public forums. Here are copies of the presentations.

Sustainable Funding Task Force Presentation – Michael Tannen

Library Fund Presentation – Diane Allen-Jacobi

Funding the EPL – Chris Stewart

Update 7:00 p.m. 9/12/10:

Our friends at the Evanston Public Library Friends have noted one complicating factor in assessing the trend in city spending by department since 2002-03.

It is that, starting with the 2007-08 fiscal year, the city included in individual departmental budgets certain fringe benefit costs which had previously been lumped into general administrative overhead.

Those costs include Social Security, Medicare and Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund contributions.

The impact of that change across departments is seen in the chart below, which shows the percentage change in general fund spending by department before the change, during the year of the change and in the years since.

The accounting change had two primary impacts.

One was a large decline in the percentage of the budget devoted to “general services” — the category that had carried all those fringe benefit costs for the entire city staff in prior years.

The other is that — because most fire and police department employees are not covered by those fringe benefit programs, but most workers in other city departments are — the change resulted in a one-year decline in the percentage of the city budget allocated to fire and police — as the benefit costs allocated to other departments rose.

The following chart shows the dollar amount of spending by each department or cluster of departments during 2002-03, during the transition years of 2006-07 and 2007-08 and this year.

It also appears we confused the library friends by not specifying in the original story that our “Health” category included all the city’s “Health and Human Services” functions, including the now dissolved Human Relations Department that was folded into the Health and Human Services Department a few years ago. In addition, the departments’ human services functions have recently been drastically cut back and remnants of them have been relocated to the Parks Department.

So, if we were to compile a list of the city departments that have been treated more harshly than the library over the past nine years we would have to include:

  • The Human Relations Department — completely abolished.
  • The Health and Human Services Department — dramatically reduced in the scope of its functions and budget.

Some might argue that other units — including ones like Facilities Management and Management and Budget — which have lost their status as independent departments — might also be considered losers.

Relative winners are the police and fire departments, whose budgets have grown dramatically over the past nine years, largely as a result of pay increases for a relatively stable number of employees, while most other departments have seen their staffing number cut significantly

The Parks Department may also be on the winners list — although it has added some additional functions during the period — including absorbing the remaining staff of the former Facilities Management Department — that make direct comparisons more difficult. Parks also recovers a substantial portion of its costs through fees for services — making it proportionately less dependent than units like the library on property tax revenue.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Fox News and Evanston Now vs. the Libraries

    For similar thinking/reporting, see Fox News story about Chicago Public LIbraries here, and be sure to read Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey’s response as well. For some real insight, you can enjoy some of the comments listed, including comments by a "Bill Smith" who may or may not be EN’s own Bill Smith. I wonder? For my money, I’d rather see the library budget grow more than Parks, especially if we’re talking essential services for employment and education in a recession.  And I think a majority of Evanston’s residents don’t parallel the thinking of Fox News.  

    1. Never let the facts get in the way of a good rant

      Hi Lori,

      A couple points of clarification.

      1. This Bill Smith doesn’t post comments on the Fox News Chicago website.

      2. The premise of the Fox News story — exploring the possibility that libraries might be unnecessary in an internet age and therefore could be eliminated — has, to the best of my recollection, never been the premise of any story on Evanston Now. Evanston Now’s coverage has focused on the issue of whether the library should impose its own tax levy, on possible alternative approaches to funding the library and on issues of setting priorities for library services in a time of tight municipal budgets.

      I pay zero attention to the Fox News Chicago website, Lori, and I can’t imagine why you seem so focused on it, except that you seem to find brandishing its name a convenient way to attempt to smear people whose views differ even slightly from your own.

      — Bill

    2. Library budget and revenue

         … I’d rather see the library budget grow more than Parks, especially if we’re talking essential services for employment and education in a recession. …

       First, the Parks Department manages: Parks, Lakefront, Recreation, Facilities, and Community Services. The opportunity to employ a wider range of citizenry through the Parks Dept. is far greater than that of the Library. Additionally, Parks offers many educational programs through recreation. And finally, the Parks Department brings in REVENUE!   I know what you are going to say, "it’s not about revenue".  For a moment just humor me and look at the figures: 

      2010-2011 City of Evanston Adopted Budget

      Library Expenditures $4,217,872 – Revenue $452,800 – Approx. 10%

      Park Expenditures $8,821,247 – Revenue $3,978,000 – Approx.  40% 

      Now imagine the disparity with the new and improved budget.

  2. Downsize police and fire Operations!

    Bill good information – The change in police and fire operations in the last nine years is twice the library budget.   The city council has allowed this to continue unchecked for a long time.

    The police and fire operations should be downsized – all the nonsense that we are going to die, is what the council plays into since they real do not have any concept of what they are doing when it comes to analyizing the operations.

    It has been easy for council members and the Mayor to take funds in thier election campagins from the firefighters and act like they are friends with everyone, the money is gone so it time for a change!

    If this continues uncheck in the future -police and fire operations will be almost the entire City budget!


  3. Is this picture painted fairly?


    1) Do these departmental budget increases include two new fire stations built within the time frame of the years you examined?

    2) Why are the police and fire departments lumped together as one considering they are in fact two separate departments that provide separate services?

    3) How much of the spending over the nine years came from federal initiatives following 9/11/2001?

    1. Painting the picture

      Hi Anonymouse,

      1. The fire stations are capital projects which are not included in the departmental budgets. They’re accounted for as part of the Capital Improvement Fund and generally are funded through General Obligation Bonds paid off over 20 years or more. (That’s also the approach that was used to fund the new downtown library.)

      2. I combined Police and Fire to reduce the number of lines on the chart and because they have generally faired similarly in the budget debates of recent years. I also combined several units — the names of which have varied over the years — into the General Services heading, folded the former human relations department into the health department which for a while absorbed its functions and folded the former facilities management department into the parks department that absorbed its functions.

      3. Don’t know the answer to that question off hand, but I believe it was a comparatively minor amount.


  4. Comparing Apples to Oranges

    Having attended the August 28th Library Board forum, I did some of my own research concerning information from the presentations made at the forum. In the presentations, there are a lot of comparisons made between the Evanston Public Library and other municipal libraries such as Arlington Heights, Skokie, Northbrook, DesPlaines, and Champaign.

    I asked two questions: 1) Was this move to a Library Fund model strictly to ensure the continued existence of the branch libraries in Evanston or will the additional funding desired go toward other services?; and 2) How many of the municipalities that utilize the Library Fund model that they use as comparisons to EPL have branches vs. one main library?

    The answer I received to Question #1 was that the Library Board had not made a decision regarding whether the existing branch libraries should remain open.  Instead, they wanted to use any additional dollars toward things like expanding Collections, etc.  The answer I received to Question #2 was they didn’t know…the only library they came back with that was indicated as having multiple branches was Oak Park’s library (not one of those compared with EPL in any presentation).  Doing my own research after the meeting, I determined only Champaign has a facility beyond their main library…one branch vs. the two we have in Evanston.  The other cities used for comparison only have a main library location.

    I also did some research on the data presented regarding revenues and expenditures and concluded that the presentations are comparing apples to oranges with the numbers provided.  What is not included as expenditures in the numbers provided for EPL when using a Library Fund model would be those needed to cover Personnel and other costs associated with HR, I/T, and other administrative services.  Those expenditures could be substantial and are included in the numbers for the other municipal libraries used as comparisons (along with the revenue to cover those costs).  This means that to continue operating the library as it is today, more revenue would be needed to cover added expenditures now being absorbed by the City.

    In light of the Library Board’s comments that they wanted to use additional monies toward Collections, I also looked at a couple of the municipal libraries EPL is compared to to understand where EPL ranks.  I looked at Arlington Heights because they are closest to Evanston in terms of population; and I looked at Champaign because the Library Board said they compared it based on it being another university campus city.  I researched # of Registered Borrowers, # of Items in Collection, and # of Items Borrowed.  The numbers came out as follows:

    # of Registered Borrowers:

    • Evanston – 57,490
    • Arlington Heights – 49,419
    • Champaign – 40,458

    # of Items in Collection:

    • Evanston – 486,094
    • Arlington Heights – 445,104
    • Champaign – 361,343

    # of Items Borrowed:

    • Evanston – 1M
    • Arlington Heights – 2.5M
    • Champaign – 2.5M

    Based on the above, it appears EPL has a larger number of items in Collection than either Arlington Heights or Champaign.  It also has a greater number of borrowers, but yet less than 1/2 the circulation (# of items borrowed) compared to the other two.  This doesn’t seem to make the case for additional dollars toward Collections.  My question would be why is EPL’s circulation so low compared to other libraries?

    I am an advocate and user of the Evanston Public Library and I feel it is a wonderful resource.  I am disappointed, however, that the Library Board has taken the action it has regarding the Library Fund.  The library (like all services) needs to recognize and take action during a down economy.  Closing the branch libraries as a duplication of services was a response determined as necessary while still having the Main Library available to all residents.  I am not in favor of potentially raising property taxes strictly to maintain branch libraries.

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