News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Library envy

As Mayor Emanuel cuts, his hometown shows how to invest in a library



On November 16, as the City Council was engaging in a group embrace of Mayor Emanuel's 2012 budget, I drove to Wilmette to visit its library.

As you may or may not know, Wilmette is one of the wealthiest communities in the country, with a median household income well above $100,000. Sure, the residents have more money to spend, but they've never been afraid to tax themselves to finance the best schools, parks, and libraries for their people. Especially their children, like—oh, just to pick one lil' feller who grew up there—Rahm Emanuel.

I've had libraries and Mayor Emanuel on my mind a lot lately, since one of the central themes of his budget—the unanimously approved one—is that he made the tough cuts his predecessor, Mayor Daley, was afraid to make.

At the top of the cut list were the libraries, because—well, I'm not sure why. It seems to contradict Emanuel's push to give kids a longer school day. Maybe his theory is that after spending all that extra time in the classroom the kids will be too exhausted to go to the library.

Whatever his reasons, Emanuel proposed to cut $11 million of a $6.3 billion budget from the libraries. After an outcry from aldermen, librarians, activists, and residents, he agreed to trim the cuts to $8 million.

For that, aldermen hailed him as a benevolent ruler. Then they hailed him again. And again. And again. And—hey, there are 50 of them in the City Council, and as usual, the mayoral benevolence bar remains low in Chicago.

Though you wouldn't know it from your ever courageous aldermen, there were many reasons to oppose Emanuel's budget.

First of all, it's regressive—it depends on a massive hike in water and sewer taxes, which hit all users at the same rate regardless of income.

Second, it's cruel, closing six of the city's 12 mental health clinics and forcing poor people who have nowhere else to turn to travel to already overcrowded facilities across town.

Third, it's deceptive, diverting at least $70 million in water and sewer funds to pay for things having little to do with either water or sewers.

And, finally, it's just baffling, especially the library cuts. Emanuel could offset those cuts simply by spending a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars he's got sitting in the tax increment financing reserves for lord knows what reason.

Anyway, on to my trip to Wilmette, I stopped at the Chicago Public Library branch in Rogers Park, at 6907 N. Clark.

The good news: the joint was jumping. The bad news: there weren't enough workers to handle the crowd—and this was before the system made Emanuel's cuts.

At the front desk, one incredibly harried librarian tried to work her way through a long line of patrons while the nearby pile of books and CDs in need of reshelving grew higher.

Almost every seat was filled and every computer taken. Lots of kids were there doing lots of homework. Several of them waited in line to talk to the reference librarian, who was patiently showing another kid how to use the computerized card catalog to find books he needs for a report.

As I looked around, I was encouraged to see that any smart and determined neighborhood kid can get a good jump on the classics—Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare—just by wandering through the stacks.

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