• Alex Nitkin
    OCT 11, 2021

    Library system needs a capital budget to keep building maintenance ‘on par’ with other cities, commissioner says

    Harold Washington Library. “It would be wonderful” if the Chicago Public Library took on its own capital budget for building construction and maintenance, library system Comm. Chris Brown said Friday. [Facebook/Chicago Public Library]

    The Chicago Public Library system has no dedicated funding source for new construction or maintenance of its 81 citywide locations — and that should change, the head of the system and multiple aldermen said Friday.

    The library system “does not have a capital budget,” Comm. Chris Brown told aldermen during a Friday morning budget hearing. The $85 million department has enough money to oversee what Brown called “care projects,” like repainting or replacing carpets.

    “But large, full renovations require us to be partnering with developers..., looking at funding at the state level or partnering with our aldermen to look at TIF [tax-increment financing],” Brown said, adding that the lack of a capital budget has forced the library system to “get creative” to find funding for big projects — like how it partnered with Related Midwest and the Chicago Housing Authority to rebuild the Roosevelt branch. 

    The difficulty has not gone unnoticed among aldermen. Ald. James Cappleman (46), said he had to tap his aldermanic menu funds to replace carpeting at the Uptown library and is still trying to fill a pothole on the branch grounds that he called “unacceptable.”

    “I have no idea how to get that done,” Cappleman said. “We have to get that addressed.”

    Ald. Sophia King (4) agreed, saying even the downtown Harold Washington Library, which is located in her ward, “needs some tender loving care.” Brown said the library system scored $1 million from the state to “make sure we’re coming out of COVID in the right way” by adding spaced seating and plexiglass. But King said the sum is “not enough, obviously.” 

    “We’ve got to work out some of those infrastructure needs, since you serve such an important role,” King said.

    The Chicago Public Library system is in line for $32 million in state-sourced grants next year, all earmarked for specific capital projects, Brown said. The sum includes $15 million for work on the Back of the Yards branch, $7 million for the Galewood branch and $10 million earmarked for “general library construction,” he said. 

    “It would be wonderful if one day we can get our own capital budget and get on par with some of those other large city library systems,” Brown said. But for now, the library system spends about 88 percent of its budget on personnel, with the rest dedicated to “collections,” as in maintaining and growing the system’s supply of books and digital materials.

    The department’s “collections budget” is set to grow by about 25 percent next year thanks to an extra $10 million from the city’s Library Fund. The boost will “allow us to be more responsive to requests for popular material” and “expand digital access” to newspapers and other resources, Brown said.

    Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) called on leaders of the library system to raise its property tax levy or “create a new funding stream” dedicated to capital projects so library officials are not “returning to this body for every single project” with requests for tax-increment financing or menu funds.

    “Not all libraries are in [tax-increment financing districts], which means when you have a library outside of a TIF, that's just on a normal street, our options are severely limited if there's any improvement or upgrade to be had,” Lopez said. “We have a lot of folks who are not in TIFs, and if we’re only relying on that, we’ll…only pay lip service to equity.”

    Lopez also noted that the Library Fund has an approximately $716,000 line item in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2022 budget proposal labeled for “capital outlay.”

    “There’s money for a capital outlay,” Lopez said. “What is stopping you from having a capital plan?”

    Brown could not account for the line item, noting that he has served in the commissioner role for less than a year. Lightfoot appointed Brown to the role in December following the retirement of previous library Comm. Andrea Telli.


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