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Library board votes to levy own tax

Members of the Evanston Library Board voted 6-2 this evening to levy their own tax on property owners next year, asserting that they need a predictable and stable funding source.

Board member Diane Allen-Jacobi and Chair Christopher Stewart were among those voting for the tax levy.

Board member Dona Gerson argued that the board was moving too fast in imposing the tax this year and that it should take a year to gather community input before making the switch.

"This is too fast and disruptive, to say ‘We’ve found this power. We’re going to use it. Now step aside,’" Gerson said.

But member Susan Newman said she’d studied the idea extensively and felt strongly that the imposition of the tax levy "is a very good move."

Gerson said that in talking with library board members in other communities she’d learned that the separate library tax levy worked well in some towns but had been the source of much friction between library and municipal officials in others.

Board member Dona Gerson said the group was moving too fast.

After agreeing to sever the library from the City Council’s budget review process, the board members then discussed how much to raise spending in next year’s budget — but reached no decision, directing staff to prepare three different budget scenarios for increases ranging roughly from zero to 10 percent.

They also speculated about how much capital costs they might incur if a new location is found for the South Branch library.

Gerson said, "Pretending that we’re not going to increase the tax levy is a charade."

But member Diane Allen-Jacobi said she didn’t see the board "proposing an increase in any budget at this point."

The current spending level for the library would cost the owner of a $600,000 home $366 a year, and under the state statute the unelected board would have the power to raise that to as much as $658 a year — an 80 percent increase.

Three aldermen attended the library board meeting, and Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said that as a taxpayer he believed the move to a separate levy would be "a serious mistake."

"The public perception," Wilson said, "is that because this is not an elected body, the board would not be accountable to taxpayers as elected bodies are."

"You should take seriously those kinds of taxpayer concerns," he added. "Because you exercise restraint doesn’t mean that the next library board will."

In addition, he said, having the separate tax levy "runs the risk of politicizing the appointment process" for future library board members.

City Attorney Grant Farrar said that while the state library statute seems to leave the municipality no discretion in carrying out the tax levy set by a library board, court cases interpreting the statute "are all over the map."

Years ago the library board had pushed for its own levy, but had pulled back when the then city attorney threatened to file suit to block the move.

Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons said that the library board, by setting its own levy, might have to absorb the cost of some services the library now receives from the city that aren’t included in the current library budget.

But he said it was too early to estimate how big those charges might be.

Update 11:10 a.m. 8/5: The two board members who voted against imposing the tax levy were Dona Gerson and Lynette Murphy.

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