Strapped for Cash, Suburban Library Chooses Hiatus over Consolidation
The old public library in south suburban Riverdale is now open for business, an unremarkable event were it not the first time in months after trustees shut the building down, refused to answer questions about why and even set police on residents seeking an explanation.
All the while, residents in the town of 13,000 just south of Chicago continued to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to underwrite a library that had locked them out.
And while the library has since resumed operating, the circumstances behind its three-month hiatus, along with its future financial stability, remain as opaque as they were during the secretive process that led to the closure in the first place.
“To me, that’s unbelievable and it’s unacceptable,” said Marshneil Gay, a 71-year-old retired postmaster who has lived in Riverdale for nearly 30 years and belongs to a local citizen watchdog group.
What is happening in Riverdale in many ways mirrors issues facing small towns throughout the nation: Struggling communities are losing their tax bases yet elected officials offer little transparency about how operations are running while also casting aside calls to be more efficient by consolidating with other local governments.
In Riverdale, like many financially strapped south suburbs, the situation exists in the extreme. Over the past two decades, residents and businesses have fled the town in droves, stressing budgets and forcing government leaders to make difficult calls about taxes and services.
The library board, which is its own government body, decided times were so tough and its tax base so small that it was left with no option other than to turn off the lights and lock the doors in December.
Yet the village, park district and school district are managing to make do with less, unlike the library, which village officials cite as cause for concern.
“If we’re able to live within our means and make adjustments in our spending because revenue is declining, then [the library needs] to do the same,” Riverdale Village President Lawrence Jackson said.
When problems at the library started percolating last spring, Jackson recalled, the library’s chief administrator approached him to see if the village could help the board make payroll. The village president said he answered with a plan to explore the possibility of merging the library with village government, only to have his offer rebuffed because officials there were unwilling to open their books.
“You’re coming here with your hand out asking for money and you’re not being very transparent and you’re not willing to take some type of action to modify your operations,” said Jackson, describing his impression of that meeting.
Board leadership did not respond to requests for an interview. Brett Shelton, a director at the library, said in an emailed statement that the board rejected the village’s offer in part because some members felt it would be a dereliction of their duties as elected officials to cede control and that “the disadvantages far outweighed the possible advantages.”
Jackson believes consolidating local governments could help struggling Riverdale, where census data show the median household income is $31,438 per year, about half the statewide average. Residents also pay the third-highest average property tax rate in Cook County, a reflection of the eroding tax base.
In that respect, Jackson’s call for consolidation is part of a broader clamor across Illinois to reduce units of local government in a state with the greatest proliferation of them in the nation -- nearly 7,000 as tallied by the U.S. Census and more than 8,500 by the count of the state comptroller’s office.
“People are losing their homes, businesses are moving out,” Jackson said. “It’s unsustainable.”
Closed and chaotic
Gay said for months prior to the closure she attended numerous board meetings and questioned how the library was being run, demanding financial and other public records. What she found, she said, was a chaotic fiscal picture that was seemingly only going to worsen.
She discovered the board had not reduced the nearly $60,000 salary of its top administrative employee even though library hours, staff and services were being cut. She also learned the library had only purchased 14 books over nearly a year, among them a guidebook on coins and a retelling of Norse mythology.
What’s more, a fiscal 2016 audit of the district’s books shows library revenues were already well below both expectations and spending. And library staff had created a GoFundMe page to solicit donations for what the page described as a “financial bind.”
But instead of reducing spending or accepting help from the village, the library began closing on weekends last summer and then, in December, shut its doors entirely and without advance public notice.
“I started getting really upset because I’m a taxpayer,” Gay said. “My taxes are going up every year and we’re not getting the performance that we’re paying for.”
From December until March, students looking for a place to do their homework, retirees hoping for some help printing a document and unemployed residents in need of computer access to complete a job search were left in the lurch.
“These children, they get out of school at 2:30, 3:00 in the afternoon,” Jackson said. “Their parents work and they need to be able to go somewhere and do their homework.”
He explained numerous residents had complained to him, thinking the village was responsible for the library’s closure.
Jackson said he couldn’t provide them with an explanation for the closure and any Riverdale citizens would have had difficulty getting clarity from library leadership. That’s because the library announced on its website that public records requests would not be fulfilled during the shutdown and excluded the public from the sole meeting it held over those months.
The website announcement about public records blamed the decision on “no staffing.” But experts called that a violation of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which grants individuals the right to review government documents, unless the public body from which they are requesting them can point to a statutory exemption.
“There’s nothing in FOIA to allow them to do that,” said Ben Silver, a lawyer with the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General’s office said public bodies cannot delay or ignore open records requests even if their doors are closed.
A 'blatant violation' of law
In late January, the library board held its first meeting since the closure and a small group of retirees showed up, seeking answers about the closure. Instead, the library’s top administrator called the police to confront the group as it pulled into the library parking lot.
Gay, who had been attending library board meetings for two years, said officers approached her and two other residents before they’d even reached the library building’s locked glass doors, where a print-out of the meeting agenda was posted included a notice: “NO PUBLIC ALLOWED.”
According to a copy of the police report, one resident told police state law requires government meetings be open to the public and that he was prepared to go to jail if arrested for trespassing.
The officers made no arrests and did allow the retirees to knock on the door. Gay said nobody answered, and she and the others eventually left.
Silver called the board’s closed meeting “a blatant violation” of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, which requires governing bodies to meet in public. One exception under the law allows boards meeting in executive session to discuss a limited list of subjects, but only after a vote is taken in public to go behind closed doors. That did not happen in Riverdale.
In addition, the law requires that any final action taken by a public body to implement what was discussed in private be taken in open session. Yet Shelton, the library director, acknowledged in an email the initial decision to close was made “by Board consensus” in executive session at their October meeting and said that closure was extended from February to March during January’s closed meeting due to lack of funds.
Travis Givens, a library trustee who said he opposed the closure, said it didn’t sit well with him that the public was excluded from that process.
Givens, a 25-year-old student at Governors State University, began attending library board meetings in 2016 and ran successfully for the board the following April with the hope of steering his childhood library in a new direction.
“No one’s ever really paid this library any attention, which is why they’ve gotten away with so many things,” Givens said.
He hopes more members of the public will get involved now.
Gay is grateful the library is up and running, but plans on demanding answers from board leadership at their next meeting, which has already been postponed.
“What are they going to do? That’s what I need to know,” she said. “Up to this point, they haven’t proven that they can do anything.”