Tucked in among the rest of the Democrats' state spending proposal for the coming year is a unique $200,000 grant earmarked for Elgin's Gail Borden Library District.
Library officials said the grant was an initiative they pushed to kick-start a bookmobile program to provide greater access to underserved readers in the district.
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But critics call it pork designed to persuade a recently appointed state representative to vote in favor of renewing the income tax rate hike.
"I think this falls in line as a one-time grant opportunity servicing low-income residents and encouraging readers in the community by bringing books to underserved areas," said state Rep. Anna Moeller, an Elgin Democrat. "I don't see it as being porkish at all. It's a very positive program for Elgin."
But critics disagree.
They noted that no other library district is getting such grant funds in the proposed budget and that such grants in the past were divided among multiple districts. Last year, four suburban municipal library systems split $300,000. The Chicago Public Library has received an annual $1.3 million grant from the state's general fund for several years and is in line to receive that amount again. Traditionally, the state's municipal library systems receive state revenue from a pool of tax dollars based on population. This year, that pool is nearly $12.5 million.
"Why is this one library district getting special treatment when no one else gets it?" said Kristina Rasmussen, executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative organization that tracks and analyzes government spending. "She is a politically vulnerable, freshman member of the legislature. There's no getting away from the fact that this one community is getting a major grant way out of line from any place else."
Carole Medal, executive director at Gail Borden, said the bookmobile program has been in the works for a while and they had approached former state Rep. Keith Farnham about championing the program before he resigned amid child pornography allegations in March.
"I would not like to put the children of Gail Borden district in the cross hairs," Medal said. "This is something that is needed. It is not a political issue."
The grant would mainly cover the cost of purchasing the vehicle, which Medal estimated at $140,000. An additional $25,000 would cover the cost of creating the bookmobile's collection of mainly children and young adult book selections, she said. The remainder would be used to help cover the cost of staffing the vehicle, which she estimated at roughly $52,000 annually.
Moeller, who replaced Farnham, sidestepped questions about renewing the state's 5 percent income tax rate. The rate is set to drop to 3.75 percent at the end of this year, but Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn have pushed for keeping it at its current level to support state programs and maintain service levels.
"We haven't seen anything come down on that," Moeller said. "I can't say until we get (a bill) we can look at."
Rasmussen said Moeller was merely dodging the question.
"That's what's on the table," she said. "To shy away from taking a stance on that is a bit of a cop-out because everyone knows what the plan is."