Nobody is denying the Forest Park Public Library has had its share of ups and downs over the last few years. The staff has thinned by about 30 percent, fewer new books are coming in, and even the board president admits that the library is operating from check to check.
Though several critics, including Forest Park Review columnist Jackie Schulz, have blamed mismanagement for these problems, Debbie King, president of the library’s board of trustees, feels that a lack of funding is the issue.
She points to recent increases in insurance costs, minimum wage and maintenance costs coupled with state property tax caps”set at either the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or a maximum of 5 percent. King said the library board has now reached a consensus that the time has come to request a tax referendum from voters.
“It’s been 10 years since taxpayers received an increase which is a long time under a tax cap,” said King. “The money is simply not keeping up with the expenses.”
King said the board had not yet determined when it would ask for the referendum.
The library’s budget is $600,000 per year. About 90 percent of its revenues come from property tax dollars, with the remaining 10 percent coming from late fees and fines. The library also receives a state grant of $19,000 each year, said King.
In order to make ends meet, King said, the library has been forced to lay off several employees, including popular reference librarian Cynthia Maroon. Maroon was the library’s second highest paid employee after director Rodger Brayden. Brayden has worked as a reference librarian and could fill in for Maroon.
Facing an urgent need to cut expenses, King said, she made the difficult decision to let Maroon go. “We had to look at money and see where can we cut ” the biggest job we have is fiscal responsibility,” she said.
“We’re no different than the village that needed to lay off people a year ago, and we’re no different from the schools and the parks that went for referendum,” she added.
Others, however, feel that the recent layoffs could have been avoided with better planning. “I felt they should have realized the need to cut costs a long time ago,” said Barbara Plona, who quit her position as a part time circulation clerk soon after Maroon was let go, stating that she could not work for a board that “did not appreciate hard work and dedication.”
Plona said that King and Brayden never asked Maroon if she would be willing to accept a pay cut. She also questioned why the library recently put down new carpeting which she said cost about $80,000.
“Now, (the library) is in such bad shape I don’t think a referendum could even pass,” she said. Plona said that though she had suggested filing for a referendum as early as January, she had not heard any mention of the idea from the board until May.
Former Head of Youth Services Nancy Kerr, who left the library earlier this year for a job at the River Forest Public Library, agreed with Plona that “(the board) probably should have looked into a referendum a long time ago.”
Plona called the library board “ineffective,” and said improvement is unlikely for as long as board members are not elected by the public. Under the commission form of government, board members are appointed by the Mayor.
“If I have to judge the mayor on one issue, it would be the library issue,” she said.
Mayor Anthony Calderone, who held what he called an “informal meeting” with concerned library patrons last week, said that “if there is a problem, the village will certainly help work towards finding a solution.”
He said that it was too early to comment on whether he would be open to the idea of a referendum.
King said the library had considered other options besides laying off employees, such as cutting hours or programming. She noted that the library puts most of its service contracts out to bid each year, and “is willing to switch to save $100.”
In the end, though, since payroll accounts for the bulk of the library’s expenses, layoffs were the only way to stay on budget.
She said that the layoffs started with part time workers, some of whom worked as little as 6 hours per week, but that eventually it was necessary to let full time employees go as well.
The library had a total of 33 employees about three years ago, and is now down to 19, according to King.
Plona said that the cutbacks had irreparably damaged morale among the library’s remaining workers. “There isn’t a single person there who wouldn’t leave if they got another offer,” she said. “It’s a really bad place to work, but people are very dedicated, and the way they were treated rubbed me the wrong way.”
Plona also accused King of being less than open with employees, stating that when she asked to see a copy of the library’s mission statement she was told to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
King acknowledged that there had been morale problems in the past, but said that at the present time morale at the library is high. She said that since the library is such a small community, when one employee’s morale is low it can affect the entire staff.
Kerr noted that the cutbacks have also created somewhat of a security risk. She said that she was verbally accosted or threatened on several occasions while working alone in the youth services department.
She said it is “very unusual” for a librarian to be left alone in a department at the River Forest Public Library, where she now works, but that it was necessary in Forest Park because of under staffing.
Another common complaint from critics of the library is that new books and materials have become increasingly scarce in recent months. King said that the library is mandated by state law to spend at least 12.5 percent of its money on acquisitions, but admitted that the library is currently operating at the “bare minimum.”
Still, she said that the library receives new books regularly, and noted that “savvy readers” are able to put new releases on hold months before they come out.
Volunteering at the library, she said, is still as popular as ever, and in recent months the library has added new volunteer operated literacy and English as a second language programs.
She said she feels that despite its troubles, the library is still “a jewel of the community.”
“I think there’s always hope,” said Kerr. “It’s understaffed and a lot of people have left and it’ll take some reorganization, but there’s hope.”