Widely fluctuating pay throughout the suburbs for top library administrators is causing some to wonder if consolidation would curb salary growth and ultimately cut costs to taxpayers by eliminating duplicative services.
However, library officials remain skeptical such initiatives would have the desired financial results.
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A Daily Herald analysis of 55 suburban library districts shows salaries for library directors range from as high as $159,537 at Elgin's Gail Borden Library to $24,500 in Kaneville. The average salary among the 55 municipal libraries and library districts was more than $105,000 a year for the top administrative post, the analysis showed.
Administrators acknowledge pay hikes are directly tied to comparisons of salaries for similar library posts in neighboring communities. Library boards set directors' salaries in most cases.
The next director of the Aurora Public Library will make at least $6,648 more than retiring director Eva Luckinbill, who spent the past 15 years heading up the three-branch municipal library system, according to a job posting offering at least $125,000 as a starting salary "depending on qualifications."
Meanwhile, some library directors attribute their higher salaries to longevity and experience.
"Comparing me with 35 years in the field to someone who has maybe five years is going to make a difference," said Carole Medal, Gail Borden's executive director. "Salary is based on many things, and the longer you work and the size of your institution play a part. Gail Borden is not just an average library. We have excelled here, and the library board recognizes leadership."
Last year the Gail Borden board recognized leadership with more than $16,000 in bonuses for seven employees -- bonuses that could increase pension obligations as well.
Medal's salary includes a $5,000 bonus, while three subordinates received $3,000 bonuses. Two others received $1,000 and one employee received $508.88, according to library financial records. Medal said hers was "unique" and awarded, in part, for being named librarian of the year by the Illinois Library Association.
"These public employees are expected to perform their jobs ably and well, and just doing their job doesn't mean they deserve a bonus," said David From, Illinois state director for Americans for Prosperity, a national tax policy reform organization. "It's imperative that library boards give really compelling reasons someone is deserving of a bonus. These are taxpayer-funded positions, and these are tax dollars used for these bonuses that could arguably be used for other things at the library."
What a library director is worth is "up for each local community to decide and what each director brings as a strength," said Yvonne Bergendorf, director the Wood Dale Library District, who believes libraries are a model for good government. "Libraries are leading the way in resource sharing. It's in the millions of dollars we're saving taxpayers by working cooperatively together to build those kinds of initiatives."
Advocates say that makes it all the easier to consolidate. Because those resource-sharing initiatives allow library users from one town to have the same privileges in a neighboring town's library and suburban library systems have well-established consortiums for purchasing power, the framework is in place to make that transition, they say. Consolidation could eliminate some of the higher-paying administrative posts and reduce costs since personnel make up the majority of all library expenses, some believe.
"Taxpayers are paying huge property taxes, and if we do any little thing to alleviate that, that's what we should be doing," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who last year called to consolidate transit agencies. "The whole thing about consolidations is you don't want to diminish services, you want cost savings."
But consolidation might not always result in cost savings, library administrators said.
"It would not be an easy transition because we all operate under different tax rates," Medal said.
Consolidation could create a higher tax burden on one group of taxpayers, while alleviating it for another, Medal said.
If one district with little debt consolidated with a district that had greater debt, some taxpayers would be on the hook for costs they didn't incur, she said.
Consolidation is something library associations frequently discuss but rarely employ -- even if there would be cost savings.
There were talks to combine Fox River Grove and Cary Area libraries about two years ago. However, Fox River Grove residents rejected the proposal despite the possibility it would lower their property tax bills, said Cary Area Library Director Diane McNulty.
"They didn't want to lose control of their local library," she said. "They said they didn't want to be a branch of Cary, and they were willing to pay extra for it."
Bensenville Library Director Jill Rodriguez said she's had informal chats with Bergendorf about potentially consolidating with Wood Dale, but those talks never amounted to much.
For her part, Bergendorf said consolidation might work if the priorities of the merging libraries aligned, and that's often not the case.
"We have a very comprehensive literacy program commitment, and that requires (staffing)," she said.
And the savings just might not be there, after all.
A comparison between the three-library Naperville system and the potential consolidation of Bensenville, Wood Dale and Addison libraries indicates taxpayers in the three towns are already paying less than taxpayers in Naperville.
In Naperville, taxpayers are spending $112 in library salaries for every library card holder. Combined, taxpayers in Addison, Bensenville and Wood Dale are spending $91 on library salaries per card holder.
"I'm confident when you look at libraries, we're at the forefront of leadership among government agencies when it comes to sharing and cooperation," Bergendorf said. "I think it's a great model of how we can all work together."