By Igor Studenkov | Bugle Staff
The Niles Public Library Board of Trustees voted 5-2 to raise the tax levy by $617,635, setting it at just under $6.72 million.
According to library estimates, this would mean that an average homeowner would have to pay $37 more than they did last year.
The vote proved to be as contentious as the meetings leading up to it, with trustees Carolyn Drblik and Danette Matyas arguing that the rest of the trustees wanted to raise money for the sake of raising it, and that it was the board’s duty to reduce the financial strain on taxpayers and spend the money more carefully. Residents who attended the meeting also spoke out against the increase. The remaining trustees argued that the increase would be more financially prudent in the long run due to the money it expects to spend on future projects, as well as potential deficits several years down the line.
As previously reported by the Bugle, the library’s tax levy is usually capped based on a complex formula that includes local property values and the Consumer Price Index. Under normal circumstances, this would have capped at $6,149,646. But because the board cut the levy two years in a row, state law allowed the library to raise the tax levy up to $7,207,440.
Greg Pritz, business manager for the library, said the library would automatically go back to the usual cap next year. During the Oct. 21 meeting, Pritz told the board that, if the levy was kept at 2014 levels, the library would start to see deficits by 2017. During the previous meetings, Board President Linda Ryan has also argued that the board would need more money for its strategic plan, the increased costs associated with managing Wonder Ground and Creative Studio spaces, and possible projects to bring services to northwestern Niles and unincorporated Maine Township.
Because the library board didn’t agree on what tax levy to set, it had to vote on whether to approve it during a Nov.30 special meeting.
Ryan reiterated the earlier arguments in support of the tax levy. She argued that, if the board didn’t cut taxes before, it wouldn’t have to raise the levy by as much as it did.
“No one likes to increase taxes,” Ryan said. “It is necessary because of the action of the previous board – lowering the levy two years in a row – put us in this unfortunate position.”
Trustee Karen Dimond drew a parallel to the state of Illinois’ current financial situation, arguing that the state government had been reluctant to make cuts to its programs while also avoiding raising taxes – which, she said, only made its finances worse.
“I don’t want the Niles Public Library to end up like the state of Illinois,” Dimond said.
She also noted that, when former Board President Morgan Dubiel proposed lowering the tax levy in 2013, it was described as a one-time gesture to help the Niles taxpayers.
Dimond added that residents’ concerns that the increase would make it harder for them to pay their bills gave her pause, but she ultimately decided that the increase was for the best – especially since it was still lower than what was levied in 2012.
Trustee Tim Spadoni argued that the money that goes into the library ultimately benefits Niles as a whole.
“I read a lot of research papers and there’s ample evidence that when you fund libraries, you put money in the economy, as well,” he said.
Trustee Barbara Nakanishi pointed to the information provided in Pritz’s Oct. 21 presentation, arguing that the increase was necessary. She added that the increase wasn’t large compared to other tax levies.
“The biggest share of my tax levy is going to schools,” said Nakanishi. “And, a very small percentage of my tax bill goes to the library.”
Trustee Patti Rozanski said she was ultimately inclined to vote for the increase because of the library’s maintenance expenses, pointing in particular to the roof repair project.
“The money has to come from somewhere,” she said. “It’s asinine of us not to put money into our roof and other things to keep this building afloat.”
Later during the meeting, Drblik responded, noting that in 2014 the board transferred money from the general fund into the special reserve fund for precisely that purpose.
Drblik reiterated her earlier arguments that the board should have looked for ways to cut expenses before approving the extension. She said she had seen no evidence that the previous tax increases hurt the library in any way.
Library Director Susan Lempke previously told the Bugle that the decreases hurt the library’s ability to buy books for the adult collection.
Drblik also reiterated an earlier argument that the library should have had a clear plan for how it was going to spend the money raised through the increase before proposing the increase.
“We’re doing the same thing the state of Illinois does; we’re spending the money without having a plan,” she said.
Trustee Danette Matyas, who also serves on the Niles Village Board, said residents asked her why she voted to increase the village’s levy but opposed the library’s increase. She said the village board, unlike the library board, had a plan on how to spend the extra money.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to keep the taxes low,” Matyas said. “Look at our money, look at our spending – we’re not doing it.”
She added that, while she knew the levy would pass, she wanted to apologize to taxpayers before casting her ‘no’ vote.
“I’m losing the vote, and I apologize that our taxes are going to be raised,” Matyas said. “[You] are being taxed for no rhyme or reason.”
Before the vote was cast, Drblik said she felt that she didn’t have a chance to have her concerns about the budget and the tax levy addressed. Dimond said she and other trustees asked Pritz questions about the levy and were able to get answers.
Matyas argued that any such questions should be answered in public. Both she and Drblik voted against the levy.
Residents who spoke during the Nov. 30 meeting all decried the increase. Dennis Martin argued that the library shouldn’t be planning any kind of expansion given its financial situation. He added that while the library’s increase may not be as large compared to what other taxing bodies levied, it adds up.
“When you roll all those increases up, you have to start [cutting] somewhere,” Martin said.
Resident Mark Gittings also said he didn’t support the increase, but added that the way the board has been operating for the past few months, with arguments and accusations, has hurt discourse – which wasn’t good for anyone involved.
“I can tell this is a hostile board,” said Gittings. “Let’s not point fingers. Let’s come together for the common problems we [should] try to solve. Let’s work together.”