Library board: Hands off endowment

The Evanston Library Board tonight rejected a request from the City Council that it devote some portion of the library’s $2 million endowment to keeping the branch libraries open.

After getting tied up in procedural knots for several minutes trying to decide how to frame a motion to debate the issue, the seven board members present took only a couple of minutes to dispose of the idea.

Board member Christopher Stewart said the endowment funds should only be used to build the library’s collection of books and other materials.

"To reduce spending in any way on the collection, when the endowment is already down, I think would be shortsighted," Stewart said.

Member Gail Bush added that to use the endowment funds for branch operating costs would be to "use it for a purpose not intended."

Member Lynette Murphy said that to use the endowment for operating expenses would be "opening Pandora’s box." If the money was used now for the branches, next it would be to pay for main library operations, "and all of a sudden we’d no longer have an endowment."

She called the idea floated by aldermen "a ship running amuck."

The library board’s policy document says endowment funds are to be used to "supplement and enhance the LIbrary’s collections, operations and facilities, never to diminish in any way the funding for the Library that is provided by federal, state or local governments."

Under the convention that annual spending from endowment accounts should be limited to about 5 percent of the total assets to avoid diminishing the principal balance available for future use, the library’s endowment could yield roughly $100,000 in spendable income a year.

The city now spends nearly $5 million a year on library operations. The estimated actual spending to buy new books and other materials for the current year, excluding computer database licenses, is $406,000, down from a budgeted level of $490,000.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewitz, as part of his plan to eliminate a $9.5 million shortfall in the city’s general fund budget, has proposed trimming the library budget by nearly $850,000 — mostly through employee layoffs that would result from outsourcing cataloging operations and closing the branch libraries.

Under the budget plan, the spending on new materials for the library’s collection, excluding computer database licenses, would drop to about $360,000. The biggest savings would come from eliminating purchases of books and periodicals for the branch libraries, but there would also be a major cut in purchases of periodicals at the main library, and smaller reductions in purchases of books and audio-visual materials there.

Funding for computer databases would drop just one percent, to $90,200.

In response to protests from branch library fans, the aldermen have tentatively voted to keep the branches open for six months to give the supporters time to raise funds to make the branches self supporting.

But, as library staff said during tonight’s board meeting, that decision could be reversed by the City Council when it meets Saturday morning and Monday evening for additional sessions on the budget.

The new budget is scheduled to go into effect March 1.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on 2/18/10 at 7:26 a.m. and again at 11:55 a.m. to clarify the library budget figures.

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