The Forest Park Public Library board last week fielded questions from a small group of residents concerning its spending habits over the past few years. The meeting drew a crowd of about seven, a far cry from a previous meeting in November during which about 40 people came to the library to discuss their concerns.

The library’s budget, the audience learned, has hovered around $700,000 since the 1996-1997 fiscal year, with the current year’s budget at $731,000. Between 2001 and 2004, the library’s expenses gradually began to climb, peaking at $855,449 in FY 2004. The library’s revenues that year totaled $707,104.

“After the deficit spending in (20)03-04, we started to apply the brakes,” said board secretary Karen Childs. “We said, ‘this is getting out of hand, and we have to balance the budget.'”

The following year, the library’s spending was down to $675,963, with revenues totaling $729,060. “This was the year when staff reductions were made…it wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the fiscally responsible thing to do,” said library director Rodger Brayden.

Recently appointed board president Andrea Blaylock, who replaced Debbie King after her resignation, commented that the staff cuts were not the only way the library cut back.

“Our past director hadn’t done a substantial job as far as checking out contractors and making sure we got the best deals,” she admitted.

Despite the cutbacks, Forest Park’s library still has a long way to go in catching up with other area libraries. According to Childs, Forest Park’s library receives about $39 per Forest Park resident in property taxes each year, compared to an average of about $78 among 20 Chicagoland communities with similar populations.

The library will be seeking a referendum in November’s elections which, Brayden has said, would allow it to increase its spending on staff salaries and circulation by 20 percent by increasing its property tax funding by about 32 percent.

Still, some questioned why the library is so dependent on property taxes, which make up just under 90 percent of its yearly revenues.

Veronica Schwartz, who heads the children’s department at the Des Plaines Public Library, questioned the board on whether it had explored opportunities to apply for grants. In the 2004-05 fiscal year, the library received $26,394 in grants and donations. About $20,000 of this money comes from an annual per-capita grant from the State of Illinois, which gives the library about $1.25 per person.

Brayden said that the library is currently seeking several grants, including a grant that would allow it to expand its career resources department and one that would allow it to digitally index its Forest Park Review archives, which date back to 1919.

Still, he said that grants are not a reliable long term solution to the library’s budgetary woes, as they generally are geared toward highly specific programs rather than the library’s general operating budget.

Brayden said he was unsure of how the library would proceed if its budget remains as is. “If something has to suffer, it might be the number of hours we’re able to stay open,” he said. “But we’re not there yet, and I haven’t really thought it through.”

Mayor Anthony Calderone supported the library’s push for increased funding. “If you’re looking to the future and wanting to make enhancements, grants aren’t going to solve it…There’s going to need to be some way to enhance the revenue side on a permanent basis.”

Schwartz was not convinced. “There are more grants out there, they just need to know where to look,” she said after the meeting. “I understand that they don’t have the personnel to research all the grants, but I think more could be done.”

Schwartz sister, Gretchen Schwartz, asked whether the library had made an effort to solicit corporate donations from businesses operating in town. Brayden acknowledged that this had not been done in the past, but said that the library is in the process of establishing a 501C3 charitable fund through the Illinois Library System Directors Organization (ILSDO).

“If the library hasn’t seen fit or doesn’t want to undergo the cost and accountability to the IRS for having its own 501C3 fund, the library can sign a contract to establish a fund underneath the umbrella of this larger organization,” he said. He said that efforts will be made to publicize the fund to residents and businesses in the coming months.

Brayden said the library is also planning to distribute two surveys, one for library users and one for non-users, to determine what Forest Parkers want to see changed or added at the library. A similar survey was sent out in January 2005.

“I thought, overall, it was constructive. Part of me would have liked to see more people come, but people had good questions and I didn’t think anyone was accusatory,” Brayden said after the meeting.

He noted that the library’s recent audits are available at its reference desk for those who could not attend. The audit for the 2005-2006 fiscal year should be available by October, he said. “By law, the books are open, and also by the board’s interest and inclination, the books are open,” he said.