By Michael Romain
SATURDAY, MAYWOOD–“The fact that this library is closed is a travesty,” said State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-7th) during a press conference he convened outside of the Maywood Library’s main entrance.
A sign notifying patrons of the library’s closure “due to a lack of funds” was taped to the doors, an optic with an effect not dissimilar to boarded-up windows on a foreclosed home. It’s a potent symbol of a crisis that is stubbornly complex and systemic in nature, but that many, nonetheless, are blaming on the mismanagement of the library’s executive staff and board of directors.
Rep. Welch looked intently into a WGN news camera and blared into a mic provided by the crew. “We have to get that library open now […] at the latest […] Monday,” he said. “We should be outraged at the fact that it’s closed […] When I head down to Springfield Monday for the veto session, there are a lot of options I will pursue,” he said.
Welch was surrounded by a damp, shivering crowd of officials and former officials from within Maywood and beyond: Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins; Trustees Cheryl Ealey-Cross, Ron Rivers, Audrey Jaycox and Toni Dorris; Maywood Village Manager William Barlow; Maywood Library Executive Director Stan Huntington; Rose Mosley, President of the library’s Board of Directors, along with board members Jose Galarza, Rev. Elliot Wimbush, Socorro Vina, T.C. Brunious, Tanya Butler and Kim Johnson; District 89 Superintendent Dr. Michael Robey and District 89 Board Member Marie Urso; District 209 board members Theresa McKelvy and Theresa Kelly; Maywood Park District Commissioner Bill Hampton; former Maywood Mayor Henderson Yarbrough; former Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene “Gene” Moore; Westchester Mayor Sam Pulia and Cook County Commissioner candidates Ron Lawless and Richard Boykins.
Nearly hidden in the crowd of local dignitaries, however, was the man bearing the brunt of the public’s outrage , and perhaps the single person most visibly associated with the library’s failure, its Executive Director Stan Huntington. He was positioned several feet in back of Rep. Welch, the scene’s focal point, and various other local leaders.
It’s a visual that captures the multiple layers of an issue dense with conflicting, yet reconcilable narratives and interests. Welch, who’s nearing the end of his first two-year term in office, is up for reelection and a closed library within his district is far from a political asset. Nor would it bode well for his campaign if he were perceived as passive in the wake of its closing.
But to dismiss Rep. Welch’s press conference as a mere political gesture would be as simplistic as laying all of the blame for the library’s closing on Mr. Huntington and his board of directors. Rep. Welch, a native of Maywood and an impassioned supporter of the library, had insisted that $150,000 of a $500,000 State grant he’d presented to the Village for capital improvements be allocated to the library when he heard of its financial condition. Since the money was restricted to capital spending, however, the Village would not have been able to give the money directly to the library, which was in need of general operating funds.
In September, Village Manager William Barlow presented the Board with a series of options for helping out the library, included in which was the purchase of the lot annexing the library’s building and an intergovernmental loan from the Village to the library district in the form of an offset. The latter option, however, would be contingent on the grant money materializing.
That grant from the State has yet to be deposited into the Village’s account, a prospect that made many Village trustees wary of extending the library district money at the time. Moreover, if and when it came, loaning the library $150,000 would mean that the Village would have to delay needed capital purchases, such as new police cars. A meeting between two Village trustees and two library board members was arranged to negotiate possible means of assistance, but nothing came of it. The matter has since been tabled indefinitely by the Village board.
Since the library’s closure, however, it’s apparent that Rep. Welch doesn’t believe that Mr. Huntington and the board have exhausted their options or made the toughest financial decisions. In the release announcing the press conference, Rep. Welch said: “We are doing a disservice to our community when we don’t prioritize spending, leaving those that are most in need to shoulder the burden.”
Most of the speakers riffed on a note sounded by Rep. Welch in his opening comments. ‘Open the library now.’
“We have so many [intelligent] people who use the library,” said Mayor Perkins. “We need the library to be open.”
“We are outraged,” said District 89 Board Member Marie Urso. “We cannot do this to […] our children […] Where are they going to go after school?”
Ms. Urso cited an academic study that suggested that over 70 percent of libraries are the only places in their communities that offer free, public computers. “We can no longer shut the door,” she said. “Open the doors now!”
“This has never happened in the history of this Village,” said District 209 Board Member Theresa Kelly. “We all need to get together and demand that this library [be] open.”
As various community leaders publicized their frustration, several of the library’s board members stood silently beside the speaker’s podium, huddled among the outraged throng. Library Board Member Socorro Vina cried inaudibly–illustrating the tragic nature of a crisis that seems to have no single perpetrator. For instance, there’s been no evidence of financial malfeasance among a library staff that’s probably sacrificed more than they’ve earned in wages in the past several years. But there have also been mistakes made by Mr. Huntington and the board that haven’t gone unnoticed by the public.
When a press conference was held on October 26, to announce the library’s closing, the only officials from any taxing body in Maywood to show up were the library board members and staff. When Library Board Member Rev. Elliott Wimbush polled the audience for Village trustees, there was no response. “All Maywood trustees present–show of hands,” he said. “And so we close at 5:30.”
The contrast between the two press conferences is a clear indication of the library administration’s ongoing struggles to effectively communicate with the wider public and other Village entities.
For instance, at the library’s press conference, many in attendance said they hadn’t been notified that the library was even in trouble until the day they received the news that it was closing. And a representative from the Mayor’s office said that they received no advanced notification of the closing, either. (Several library board members said that they did contact the mayor, but only received voice mail).
The contrast also indicates the strong possibility that the public, at least as represented by local leaders, may largely blame the library’s closing on its administrative stewards. Rep. Welch’s press conference exhibited a united front of local leaders demanding that the library reopen. The library’s press conference, on the other hand, seemed more like a public inquisition, with the library board and executive director the lone targets of citizen disappointment and anger.
For their part, Mr. Huntington and the library board have consistently challenged what they believe to be misconceptions propagated by various parties. When Rep. Welch invited library officials to speak, the palpable, yet understated, tension that marked the press conference until then suddenly inflamed into a very cordial, but apparent, moment of conflict.
Rev. Wimbush, visibly frustrated, moved to the podium and spoke deliberately to “claims made in the press” (which are not qualified, but not inaccurate, either) that the library is in debt and implications among the public that its closure was due to financial mismanagement or laxity in oversight.
“The fact that the library has closed was never the intent or desire of this staff or board,” he said, before insisting that he’d put the library’s current staff up against any staff. “[This is a safe haven] because our staff is dedicated to making sure that it remains that way.”
He also cited a litany of structural limitations under which the library was operating, such as shortened staff hours, furloughed staff, the drastic dip in tax collections and the library’s function as a nonprofit institution. “We are the only entity in town that ensures you get as much as you can for free.”
From Rev. Wimbush’s and the library administration’s standpoint, the present crisis originates in a sharp dip in property tax revenues caused by Maywood’s incredibly high housing foreclosure rate (one of the highest in the state) and the steady, persistent flow of homeowners moving out of the Village for greener pastures. The crisis reached a tipping point, however, after Seaway Bank tightened the conditions of the library’s loan, suddenly forcing it to service twice the level of debt it had serviced in the past–under austerity conditions (shortened operating hours, furloughed staff, stagnant salaries) that even then were considered extreme.
“Ultimately, we need to find a larger, better capitalized bank to carry the final years of our loan,” Mr. Huntington said in an interview conducted back in September.
“We’re at a 26 percent rate loss of collections for the year, but when you have the bank taking .40 of every dollar and then you take a 26 percent loss, that’s 66 percent [of funds that have been lost or went to servicing debt]. We can get by on 55 percent [of revenue], not 35 percent. As of August, we have paid about $8M over the 15-year life of the Mellon-New York bonds [raised to construct the library’s modern addition], but we borrowed from Seaway to make some of those bond payments. Seaway has been unremitting in wanting a very substantial amount of its money,” he said.
“We went from owing Seaway $1,275,000 to $526,000 in about two years. In August, they informed us that they renewed the [tax anticipation] warrants, but weren’t able to give us $200K back to operate […] That’s what initiated our crisis. We had originally planned that we’d be out of debt by late 2014, now its 2016, but the bank said it’s not in a position to stretch the loan out that long.” Mr. Huntington has insisted that the library has never been late on a payment. He said that the library has supplemented its tax revenue with about $400K in grants that he’s acquired over the last eight years in his function as grant-writer.
Importantly, this version of events has not yet been substantially invalidated. And indeed, the Maywood library’s closing is far from without precedent, if not part of a trend that is dangerously becoming more and more common among distraught communities throughout the nation and the world — a reality that points to structural and systemic causes that would’ve proven formidable for any library administration.
It may even be the case that with the austerity measures they already put in place, Mr. Huntington and his board of directors may have delayed the inevitable by months or years–a possibility that the public has largely ignored. But as the saying goes, ‘You don’t get credit for disaster averted.’
Now with the library closed, the blame has focused rather acutely on the actions that weren’t taken by Mr. Huntington and the board in the months and days before the closing and the days and weeks afterwards.
Central to this drama is the revelation that, during recent negotiations, Seaway Bank offered the library a 12-month extension on paying the remaining half million dollars left on the loan. Rep. Welch said that the President and Vice President of Seaway themselves offered the year-long “extension on debt currently mature and due.” That offer, Rep. Welch said, “is waiting for a signature.”
But Mr. Huntington, although acknowledging the offer, retorted that the extension was not sufficient for the library to operate. He said the library needs $500K amortized over 48 months to get through the spring. According to Mr. Huntington, the library’s general operating expenditures have amounted to about $80K a month, down from about $120K a month several years ago.
According to undisclosed sources, Seaway’s 12-month extension would be contingent on the library taking even more drastic austerity measures than they have in the past–measures that, according to sources, the bank doesn’t think are stringent enough. New action would entail cutting the library’s operating staff in half and implementing pay cuts in addition to the pay freezes already in place.
The focus on austerity, however, may undercut other measures that could be taken to reopen the bank. Rep. Welch said that he reached out to Illinois Secretary of State Jessie White, whose office also functions as State Librarian. White sent his library director to meet with Rep. Welch and Mr. Huntington, among others. The director noted that the State could possibly fund library programming, but the library reportedly has no substantial programming on hand. More hollowing out of staff, however, could possibly hamper efforts to create that revenue-generating programming.
Rep. Welch also suggested the library seriously pursue selling the lot of land annexing it. “Before [the library closes] I’d like to see that lot sold,” he said during his remarks.
Mr. Huntington has repeatedly rebuffed suggestions that the library sale the land, citing its low appraisal value in what is still currently a depressed real estate market. “The land annexed to the library property is not worth much now,” he said during the interview in September. There have been various valuations of the land, but none verified at this time.
From Rep. Welch’s standpoint, the library should be entertaining every option that allows them the ability to reopen their doors and gives them time to create a long-term strategy. “I’m putting together a Maywood Public Library Advisory Committee to work with the library to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Welch. “But first, we need them to open the library!”
On that latter point, everyone agreed. VFP