By Michael Romain
THURSDAY, MAYWOOD — In what may be unprecedented in its 140-year history, the Maywood Library Board took a contingency vote to allow the director, Stan Huntington, to close the Library if he deems it necessary, with the “understanding that this is an absolute last resort and there is no possible recourse in the immediate future.” The motion passed unanimously. “I so move […] and it pains me to do so,” said Library Board member Rev. Elliot Wimbush before the vote was taken.
According to Huntington, the Library’s recent financial woes stem from a severely diminished residential tax base and stricter loan conditions recently introduced by Seaway Bank.
The Maywood Library, as with most municipal libraries, relies on property taxes for nearly all–more than 95 percent–of its revenue. In Maywood, residential real estate comprises the bulk of property taxes, which, according to Huntington, have decreased due to several factors. Depreciated property values, a wave of recessionary foreclosures and a mass exodus of homeowners from Maywood were all implicated in Mr. Huntington’s analysis of the structural issues that have led to the Library’s financial crisis.
“The tax base here is extremely weak,” said Huntington, who noted that for the past year, the Library has experienced a 26 percent loss of tax revenue.
“The retail and commercial tax base is far below surrounding communities,” he said. “Between the Civil War to the year 2000, the population of Maywood hasn’t varied more than 100 people between any ten-year period. But between 2000 and 2010, according to the most recent census, about 3,000 people left Maywood […] What has happened for that to take place? I don’t know. That’s sort of an in-built, structural problem.”
In addition to the loss of tax revenue, the library has also been forced to operate under the strain of servicing a loan from Seaway Bank, the conditions of which suddenly tightened this past year.
“We had an arrangement with First Suburban Bank and then Seaway Bank in 2010,” Huntington said at a September 11, 2013, LLOC meeting. He noted that, since 2007, 33 percent of the Library’s annual revenues had went to paying down the Seaway debt. In January of this year, however, Seaway tightened the conditions of the loan, which required the Library to increase its debt-servicing to 40 percent of annual revenues. “We’re very worried about that,” Huntington said.
With 40 percent of revenues going to debt servicing and 26 percent of revenues lost to a diminished property tax base, that leaves a mere 44 percent of revenue left for operating expenses, such as employee salaries and utility bills. The only way left to cope under such financial duress is to make budget cuts.
This year, the Library closed the third floor. It has placed its full-time staff on unpaid furlough, while some staff positions below the managerial level have been reduced to three days a week. Unlike those of neighboring towns such as Oak Park, Forest Park and Bellwood, Maywood’s Library is only open five days a week, with shortened hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (when it closes at 5:30 pm, instead of 9 pm). And, according to Mr. Huntington, since 2007, 50 percent of the staff has been let go, mostly due to attrition, and no staff member has had a pay increase.
Mr. Huntington presented a proposal to the Village Board at the September 11, meeting that entailed the Village loaning the Library District, a taxing body separate from the Village, $150,000. Huntington noted that the money would be used for immediate operating expenses and would be paid back to the Village in funds that the Library would realize in 2015.
The idea for what is essentially an intergovernmental loan dates to a $500,000 grant that Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch presented in the form of a presentation check to the Village in July. Although the funds are to be used exclusively for capital improvements, according to Mr. Huntington, Rep. Welch suggested that $150,000 of that money go to keeping the Library solvent. Village Manager Bill Barlow said the Village could loan the Library money from its general fund. That money would then be offset by the infusion of the grant funds.
However, there are several challenges confronting the proposal. For one, according to several sources, the actual grant money from the State has yet to materialize. Mr. Barlow said that some trustees have been reluctant to vote to extend a loan to the Library with the State funds still outstanding. There’s also the issue of the Village offsetting $150,000 in funds that, if loaned to the Library, would mean the delay or cancellation of capital acquisitions, such as the purchase of three new police vehicles, that would otherwise have been made with the money.
“I have no problem giving the $150,000, but we need police cars and we need to have stuff done on our end, so we’re not in the same shape [as the Library] asking someone to help us. For me, we need to have that money on hand. We already know how slow the State pays,” said Trustee Toni Dorris at the August 14, 2013, Board meeting, where the purchase of the vehicles was brought up.
“Taking out a loan for general operating expenses is not a good idea,” said Trustee Cheryl Ealey-Cross at the September 11, LLOC meeting. “If we were to lend to you, what would you do three to six months down the road?”
Mr. Huntington responded that the library was actively “seeking out different financial remedies,” the specifics of which he said he wouldn’t disclose due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.
After Huntington’s September 11, presentation to the Board, a sub-committee meeting was arranged between two trustees and two Library Board members to discuss the Library’s situation and whether the Village would intervene. Since that meeting, according to sources, Village intervention, whether in the form of a loan or another measure, has been effectively tabled. Whether or not the Village will renew discussions with the Library if and/or when the State funds materialize is anyone’s guess.
For now, the Library Board has put in motion its own contingency plans, among which closing is one. At the September 19, Library Board meeting, several Maywood residents put forth possible alternatives to closing. One such alternative was to allow the Library to maintain limited after-school hours for students who need to utilize the building to study and do homework.
Others, expressing surprise that the Library relied on taxes for 95 percent of its funding, wanted to know whether Huntington had sought other means, such as grants and various profit-generating schemes, for revenue.
Huntington said that, within the last five years, Maywood has acquired about $400,000 in grants and alternative funding and has been among the top recipients of grant funding among municipal libraries in Illinois. However, he also noted that since the recession, the competition for these funds “has gotten really, really fierce.”
As a last resort, one Maywood organization, led by Dr. Quincy Johnson, has been appealing to companies such as Walgreen’s to give to the Library and trying to raise awareness of the Library’s plight.
“How can we as a community help?” said Kim James, one of the residents in attendance at the Library Board meeting.
“Take this letter, put it on Facebook, email it to anybody you know,” said Huntington. “The Maywood Library Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization. Donate to it and write if of on your income taxes. In the near-term, that’s the best possible thing you can do. If you have any [funding] source you think would be a potential benefit to the library, send it to us. You never know what door you can open.” VFP