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Some branch backers want a divorce

Some backers of Evanston’s branch libraries argue the city’s library department should divorce itself from city government.

They contend the city’s library system would be better off if — like Wilmette’s library — it was a separate taxing district, independent of the city.

The branch libaries are slated for closure under the budget submitted by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz that’s now being reviewed by the City Council, including at a budget workshop scheduled for 8:30 this morning. The closures would save about $425,000 as the city tries to close a $9.5 million gap in its budget.

Former 3rd Ward alderman Emily Guthrie is among those arguing for the split.

She says towns, like Wilmette, that have separate library districts provide more financial support for their libraries than Evanston does.

The Public Library District Act of 1991 provides several methods by which an existing library can be converted to an independent public library district.

But only two options are available for a library established as Evanston’s was under the Illinois Local Library Act.

One way would be for the City Council to approve a resolution adopted by the existing library board.

But, using that approach, the new library district would initially be limited by state statute to imposing a property tax rate of no more than 0.15 percent. At current property values that would yield essentially the same revenue that the library now gets from the city, about $4.5 million a year.

The other option is for advocates of the divorce to gather petition signatures from 10 percent of the city’s registered voters. That would force a referendum vote on the issue, and the referendum question could specify any funding level desired by the advocates up to a rate of 0.60 percent — or four times what Evanston’s library spends now.

Jonathan Perman, executive director of Evanston’s Chamber of Commerce, says creating a separate library district would add to what’s already a major problem in Illinois — the fragmentation of local government. He says Illinois has more governmental units than almost any other state and the fragmentation cost taxpayers a lot.

He suggested the branch library backers, if they really want a separate district, might look instead toward library consolidation across municipal boundaries, something also permitted under the state law. That could permit more operating efficiencies and resource sharing.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz has suggested that separating the library would increase costs, because the library now shares a variety of functions, including accounting and human resources, with the city, functions that would have to be separately staffed by an independent library district.

But Guthrie minimizes that concern, saying a new library board "could buy QuickBooks for a couple hundred bucks."

Wilmette, which converted to a separate library district immediately after the state enabling legislation was adopted in 1991, has since gone to voters twice for an increase in its library tax rate, Guthrie says.

Wilmette now raises about $5.1 million a year in library tax revenue. That costs Wilmette taxpayers about $193 per capita, compared to about $57 per capita now paid by Evanstonians for their libraries.

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