Cook library branch is going up, but grant to fund it nowhere to be found
In 2006, state Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan and then-state Rep. Kathy Ryg of Vernon Hills surprised Cook Memorial Public Library District officials by publicly announcing they'd secured a $500,000 state grant to help fund the construction of a new library in Vernon Hills.
At the time, the source of the money hadn't been determined, nor had a construction plan been developed. But the two Democratic lawmakers said the cash had been preapproved by legislative leaders.
Three years have passed since the attention-grabbing announcement, and a new library is under construction on Aspen Drive south of Route 60. But not a dime of that promised money has been delivered to the district.
In fact, the grant has expired and has not been included in subsequent state budgets, library officials said.
At the time, local Republican leaders criticized the promise as "election pork."
On Monday, library board President Bonnie Quirke called the undelivered promise a campaign-season ploy. She's particularly steamed that library officials haven't heard anything from lawmakers about the grant in ages.
"I'm very disappointed," Quirke said. "I understand budget and finance, but I also understand that when legislators make a promise to the district, they have a responsibility to keeping the lines of communication open."
On Monday, Link said his staff will look into the matter and ensure the money is made available, as promised.
"I'm not going to let this slip through the cracks," he said.
Ryg, who resigned from the state House this summer, could not be reached for comment. Her replacement in the House, Vernon Hills Democrat Carol Sente, has asked her staff to investigate what happened to the proposed grant.
"This is something they counted on and hoped for," Sente said of library officials. "Expectations should be delivered upon."
The construction of a new Vernon Hills library is part of a $14 million plan developed by Director Dan Armstrong and the library board in 2007. It also calls for the expansion and renovation of the historic library in downtown Libertyville.
Link, formerly of Vernon Hills, and Ryg both had been longtime supporters of the library district and the need for a facility in Vernon Hills. In August 2006, they appeared at a Cook Memorial board meeting and promised $500,000 in state funding for such a project.
The pledge - made as both Link and Ryg were seeking re-election - was lauded by library officials but criticized by Lake County Republican Party leader Dan Venturi as "a transparent purchase of votes."
Another GOP leader at the time, Antonietta Simonian, publicly demanded the district return the money to reduce Illinois' debt or help fund state pensions.
But there was never money to return. Although the grant was to be paid out on a project-by-project basis, no checks ever were cut to Cook Memorial. Library officials never even completed their application for the money, because the grant - expected to come from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity - expired before the current construction plan was finalized, Armstrong said.
The grant has not been renewed, he said.
"Barring action by the state legislature, we won't see that half-million dollars," Armstrong said.
Cook Memorial's construction plan raises money for the project without raising tax dollars, and the budget is tight, Armstrong said. Some elements have been cut to save money, such as a proposed 10,000-square-foot reading garden at the Vernon Hills site, he said.
An additional $500,000 could pay for that element and other improvements, Armstrong said.
Quirke, who's active in Republican politics, is angry the grant vanished.
"That money was promised to us in good faith," said Quirke, who was named president of the board earlier this year. "We counted on the good will of the legislators who promised to follow up."
Looking back, the GOP's Venturi said he knew the timing of the lawmakers' announcement - less than three months before Election Day - was suspicious.
"It was another empty promise," Venturi said.
Three years ago, library board member Mary Ann Phillips called the GOP's complaints about the grant pledge "sour grapes." On Monday she said she was "deeply disappointed" the money never materialized.
"When a public official tells you they've earmarked money for you ... you hope that they're telling the truth," she said. "It wasn't meant to be, I guess."
Link insisted the money was there for the library in 2006 but added that "they don't just hand you a $500,000 check." Paperwork must be completed, renderings must be handed in and other bureaucratic obstacles must be hurdled.
Regardless, "we have got people checking into it right now," Link said.
"We will make sure we fulfill this commitment," he said.