Suburban libraries hoard money, avoid getting voters' approval to build
Years ago, the Lake Villa Library District board asked voters for permission to build a new facility, but voters rejected the plan.
By the end of next summer, the district will open a new 66,000-square-foot library in Lindenhurst.
"We have been saving our additional revenue and putting it aside to either add on or build a new library," Lake Villa Library Director Andy Lentine said. "After a needs assessment, it was determined we couldn't build onto our existing site, hence we're building a brand-new building."
The district didn't need voters' permission to move forward because the board had socked away nearly $20.4 million by the end of 2017 over the course of nearly two decades, almost enough to cover the cost of the new library. The district will sell the old library site and use the proceeds to cover any additional construction costs, Lentine said.
"I don't think we've had any pushback," Lentine said. "We're not increasing anyone's tax dollars."
But they didn't lower anyone's taxes, either, which could have been done, critics argued.
Barrington Hills Republican state Rep. David McSweeney called the practice an "example of why we need to lower tax levies."
"This is a shortcoming of the tax cap law," he said. "Because it's either half the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is lowest, these taxing bodies can grow their property tax levies and build up reserves even after the voters have rejected a request like that."
Lake Villa is not the only library in the suburbs with millions in reserve for construction. A Daily Herald analysis of 55 suburban libraries' financial records showed a combined $125 million being held in reserve for future construction projects and another combined $100 million held in reserve without any specific spending target.
Lake Villa is among 12 libraries that have combined reserves in excess of the library's annual expenses, according to financial records. Government finance experts suggest about 20 percent of a taxing body's annual expenses is a healthy reserve to cover emergency costs.
Paul Ingevaldson, a one-time Bloomingdale Library Board trustee who now lives in St. Charles, was upset when the library board in St. Charles announced plans to move forward with an expansion or possibly a new building after voters rejected the plan nearly a decade ago. Library officials there have almost $12 million in reserve to cover construction costs.
"To me that's overtaxing," Ingevaldson said. "I used to serve on a library board and I don't think we'd ever do anything like this."
St. Charles library officials did not return phone calls seeking comment about their plans. However, in 2016, board member Tory Haines said the district wasn't acting improperly and the district was only receiving the taxes the district was "entitled" to get under state law.
"The answer would be to require voter approval for any major capital expenditure, even if they're using tax reserves," McSweeney said. "When most taxing bodies tax to the maximum, you develop this problem."
There are two types of libraries: library districts and municipal libraries. Districts have autonomous, separately elected boards. Municipal libraries are under the thumb of a town with a board made up of appointed members. Municipal libraries sometimes have even more money at their disposal because a village board or city council can chip in funds without voters getting a say in the process.
In Addison, where the library is under the jurisdiction of the village, officials have saved more than $12.5 million in its construction reserve fund. Library Director Mary Medjo Me Zengue said the plan ever since the new library was built in 2008 was to build up reserves for an eventual expansion. The library board is now planning for construction of that expansion.
As the needs of some library patrons change from physical products to downloadable materials, some question the necessity for more space.
"We need to think long and hard as technology is changing about the real need for new and larger buildings," McSweeney said.
But Medjo Me Zengue said those are issues the board is considering.
"At the time the original schematic design was created, we thought our collections would grow significantly," she said. "But I suspect now, as we are able to offer more digital content, that we may have a greater need for more meeting and programming space."
Even with voter approval, construction plans can result in controversy. Lombard's Helen Plum Library received voter approval for a tax hike but didn't have construction plans locked down. Now, the library board and the park district in Lombard are feuding over plans for a new library that might never get built. Meanwhile, the Plum Library board is sitting on about $10 million in construction reserves that will only keep growing.
"They passed a referendum for a new building without permission to build it and now taxpayers are stuck," complained Lombard resident Bob Biddle. "And this tax hike has no sunset clause, so it may be that way forever."
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Banking for buildingsLibrary boards across the suburbs are stashing away millions of dollars with plans to expand or build new libraries without having to ask voters for a tax increase. Here are the libraries with the highest reserves.
Library Combined reserves
Lake Villa $21,670,273
Villa Park $12,284,215
St. Charles $11,692,536
*Arlington Heights $9,978,842
*Cook Memorial (Libertyville) $9,386,564
Gail Borden (Elgin) $8,375,267
Vernon Area (Lincolnshire) $7,498,725
*Note: 2017 most recent figures
Source: Library audits