The controversy about 152 Boone County residents recent objections to being annexed into the Cherry Valley Public Library District last year raises many questions, especially about how public libraries are funded and how libraries should serve communities.
The controversys flames have been fanned by Boone County States Attorney Roger T. Russells June lawsuit against the district and last weeks Rockford Register Star articles and editorial references to The Rock River Times circulation.
The issues surrounding the annexation of 661 properties last Dec. 27 into the Cherry Valley Public Library District are complicated. However, mistrust of the districts intentions that critics said is exemplified by alleged lack of communication between affected residents and the district, growing use of library resources and shrinking tax base, appear to be the focal issues.
Ann Powell, library director for the North Suburban Library District, which serves Loves Park and Machesney Park, addressed the funding issue in a letter that was sent last week to The Rock River Times and Register Star.
Powell wrote: The Cherry Valley Library annexation article and editorial published in the Rockford Register Star failed to tell the whole story.
Libraries are struggling in these difficult economic times. Although tax caps have effectively curtailed increases in library revenues, the price of books, magazines, online databases, utilities and health insurance continue to climb. In order to balance the budget, library trustees must either raise additional revenue or cut expenses (staff, hours or materials).
The laws governing district libraries provide two options for raising revenue: pass a referendum to raise taxes or annex additional territory. Annexation can be done by the library board passing and publishing an ordinance (approximate cost in the Rockford Register Star $900) or by passing a referendum.
Library boards are very hesitant to put referenda on ballots. If they do, they are faced with having to sell it [advantages of an increase in the library tax] without using any tax dollars. That means recruiting volunteers who will donate money, talk to groups, produce literature, and send mailingsa pretty daunting task for unpaid trustees who see even well-funded and publicized efforts fail.
I encourage citizens who support libraries to write their legislative representatives calling for universal library service for all Illinois citizens.
Not only would this provide all Illinois citizens with lifelong learning and recreational opportunities at a low cost but also provide libraries with revenue they need to flourish, Powell wrote.
She also said in an interview: Publishing a legal notice is a way of legally annexing under the law. For the Register Star to lambast a library for following the law seems unfair.
The third way libraries can increase their tax base is for residents that are not served by a public library to request membership in the district.
Eve Kirk, who has been executive director of the Cherry Valley Public Library District for nearly four years, provided information that supported Powells funding assertions. After adjusting for inflation, the districts budget in 1988 was $191,375 compared with $564,216 in 2002.
However, the budget numbers dont tell the whole story. The districts inflation adjusted, dollars spent per square foot have dropped from 1988s $70.88 per square foot to $42.42 per square foot in 2002.
Also, the number of books, subscriptions, card-holders, population served, materials checked out, operation hours, computers, utility costs, staff and square footage have increased substantially both in number and percentage since 1988.
These facts point to the need for more library dollars to ensure high quality service and resources, said library officials.
Kirk added the Register Stars articles failed to mention an important fact for taxpayersthe district tax rates went down.
According to Kirk, last year the tax rate was 0.3205 compared with 0.2777 this year. Kirk attributed the tax rate drop to the controversial annexation of parts of southwestern Boone County.
The county uses the tax rate to calculate how much a property owner will pay the taxing district.
According to Kirk, Illinois community colleges realized decades ago that a stable source of funding was needed to ensure high-quality service to residents. Such a realization, Kirk said, is one reason community college district boundaries were drawn to encompass all areas of the state, rather than just regions that can afford such educational opportunities. Kirk would like to implement an access and funding system similar to Wisconsins.
Mike Cross, consultant for Wisconsins public administration and funding division for libraries said, in Illinois …if someone lives outside a public library district, they dont necessarily have free access to the library. They would have to pay a fee to use the library.
In Wisconsin, to be a member of the state-funded library system, the library must agree to serve every resident of the library system, as if they were a local resident. As a result, almost everybody can go to a library of their choice without having to pay a fee, Cross said.
He also said what changed in 2001 and may change more in the future, due to pending legislation, is the system that allows for a county library tax, which reimburses libraries for non-resident usage. The tax is administered by county governments, according to Cross. This means libraries must track and report usage to county officials to ensure adequate funding.
According to Kirk, about 7 percent of Illinois residents are not served by any public library.
Boone County resident Tom Boers, who initiated the June petition that may force a special election by years end to reverse the librarys annexation ordinance, is not happy with the method by which his property was annexed. Boers would have preferred a referendum.
Boers property and 660 other Boone County properties were annexed thorough a process that involved publication of three legal advertisements last Nov.27 in The Rock River Times and a subsequent hearing and library board meeting, which adopted the annexation ordinance Dec. 27.
The advertisements filled all of a 10-inch by 16-inch page, for which The Rock River Times charged the district a total of $594.23.
Powell said similar advertisements in the Register Star would have cost approximately $900 an ordinance. Since three ordinances were published by the Cherry Valley Library District in that issue, she estimated the cost at $2,700.
Kirk said: The Cherry Valley Library District had published a Truth in Taxation Notice that the tax levy might exceed 5 percent, on Nov. 18, with the Register Star, and we faxed them all the requirements for that publication as given by statute. We were very specific about the requirements. Then they published it without the required black border. Duh!
The notice measured 3 3/4 inches by 7 3/4 inches, and they charged us $728.40. We complained about the mistake, and they gave it to us at half price. We have gone to The Rock River Times because your prices are better and because of our budget. We have actually gone to both publications because they are two businesses in town. For the longer notices, we have gone to The Rock River Times, which, is noted for its number of legal ads. I think its fiscally prudent. It is the taxpayers money, Powell said.
Register Star staff and executives, including President and Publisher Fritz Jacobi and Executive Editor Linda Grist Cunningham refused comment for this article.
Contrary to the implication in the Register Star articles and editorial on the issue, Boers said his complaint is not that the advertisement was placed in The Rock River Times, but a lack of communication on the part of the library board to make efforts beyond the legal requirements for notification. Boers said, I dont have a problem that they published in The Rock River Time
Boers would have preferred that affected homeowners be notified by mail of the library boards annexation plans and subsequent December action and an opportunity to vote on the annexation issue. As a result of annexation, Boers said his tax bill increased over $125 this yearmore than if he would have requested an individual membership.
Cherry Valley library officials have begun their defense against a lawsuit that was filed June 26 by Boone County States Attorney Roger T. Russell. The lawsuit alleges the district without lawful authority, right or warrant exercises jurisdiction in the annexed areas and asks that the board defend its actions in court. The complaint concludes by asking the district to pay up to a $25,000 fine.
The Register Stars July 21 article begins, The Boone County states attorney is suing the Cherry Valley Library District, accusing the district of improperly publishing a little-seen legal notice and then adding 661 properties to its tax base in December. …
However, no such accusation pertaining to publishing a little-seen legal notice is in Russells complaint. The Register Stars July 22 and 26 articles dropped references
tying the complaint to The Rock River Times circulation and distribution and instead focused on a typographical error in the legal advertisement .
Register Star policy prohibits its reporters from commenting for articles in The Rock River Times. The Register Star staff referred all questions to Cunningham, who refused comment.
At the time the legal advertisement was published last Nov. 27, The Rock River Times delivered a total of 4,794 papers to 406 locations near and within the library districts taxing district. Estimating only two readers per paper, an estimate many would consider low, approximately 9,588 readers were reached for the week of Nov. 27 within and near the existing boundaries of Cherry Valley Public Library District.
Of the 4,794 papers, a total of 394 were returneda total return of approximately 8 percent.
In the Belvidere area, 620 papers were delivered to 63 locations. Only 5 percent or 30 papers were returned. In Cherry Valley, 580 papers were delivered to 41 locations, with a return of 34 papers or 6 percent. For free weekly newspapers, return rates of 20 percent or less are considered exceptional.
Last Nov. 27, The Rock River Times distributed 20,000 newspapers to 1,802 locations in the Rockford metropolitan area,
including Winnebago, Boone, Ogle and DeKalb countiesabout 8 percent of the papers were returned.
Russell told The Rock River Times that he couldnt comment because the case was still being litigated.
Sources said Russell filed the lawsuit in part because of a typographical error in the legal publication that referred to School District 200, Boone County, rather than School District 100. The error was not made by The Rock River Times, but was in the text as provided for publication. However, the legal description of the area to be annexed was correct in its entirety.
The petition may force a special election by years end, to reverse the annexation ordinance, if the lawsuit doesnt render the referendum moot before ballots are printed.
Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this article.