Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, famously invoked a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
If you’ve been paying attention to the adventures of Illinois’ new governor, Bruce Rauner, you know that he has been learning a painful lesson: In the state that calls itself the Land of Lincoln – a sick joke, considering the pervasive dishonesty and corruption for which Illinois has become infamous – we seem to have become a government of the bureaucrats, by the politicians, for the special interests.
And those special interests often include both the bureaucrats and the politicians.
Gov. Rauner is finding out just how entrenched those bureaucrats and special interests really are, and how determined they are to maintain Illinois’ continuing road-to-bankruptcy status quo: No matter what it is that Rauner wants to cut, it always seems to be somebody’s indispensable program, service or entitlement.
So it should come as no surprise that a variation on that same theme is playing out here in Park Ridge. And although there are many examples we could point to, today we will look at the Park Ridge Public Library – specifically the $43,738 in raises recommended for some of the Library’s 90 employees that the Library Board nixed last month.
That $43,738 is around 1% of the Library’s annual budget. In government, both that dollar amount and that percentage are treated as little more than rounding errors. And small ones at that.
But that $43,738 represents a principle much more significant than the dollars or percentage: Whether the Library exists primarily for the benefit of its taxpayers/users, or for the benefit of its employees?
Last summer that question was answered loudly and clearly by Library Director Janet Van De Carr and a majority of the then-Library Board (Trustees John Benka, Audra Ebling, Margaret Harrison, Dorothy Hynous, John Schmidt and Jerry White) when it chose to slam the doors – literally – on the Library’s Sunday users for 14 summer Sundays, rather than use the roughly $20,000 earmarked for employee raises to keep those doors open. You can read the gory details in our our 04.04.14 post, our 04.14.14 post and our 05.29.14 post.
And those doors stayed shut until the July 15, 2014, Board meeting, when new Trustees Pat Lamb and Dean Parisi, replacing Benka and Schmidt, joined with Trustees Joe Egan, Char Foss-Eggemann and myself to provide a majority vote to overturn the Sunday closings. With that handwriting on the wall, Ebling, Harrison and White grudgingly flipped – leaving only Hynous insisting that shutting down the Library on summer Sundays wasn’t wrong and provided a more consistent referendum message.
With the new Board has come more oversight, a more pro-active approach to management, and a more exacting focus on Library finances than existed in past years.
So when increases to employee compensation came up at the April 14 Library Board personnel committee meeting, a majority of the Trustees in attendance voted to convert Van De Carr’s recommended $43,738 merit salary increase pool into a $25,000 merit bonus pool. And then at the April 21 Library Board meeting, a majority of the Trustees present rejected any additional compensation for employees, indicating that neither Van De Carr nor the employees themselves had made a persuasive case for such additional compensation.
Not surprisingly, that exercise in financial stewardship whacked the hornets’ nest.
Not only did Van De Carr express her indignation at the temerity of the Board to reject one of her recommendations, but so did some employees and a collection of folks from the Citizens Supporting the Library Referendum, who were on hand that night to be honored for their efforts in running the successful Library referendum campaign. The employees and referendum folks accused the “no”-voting Trustees of not valuing the employees, of ruining morale, and of ignoring the will of the voters who passed the referendum.
Of course the Library employees are valued. But just like the rest of us mortals, they are not irreplaceable. They can die, become disabled, move to another state, or simply change jobs or careers. So if their morale is so fragile that it can be crushed by not getting a raise or bonus this year, then it’s far too fragile to count on under any circumstances.
Moreover, nothing in the referendum question itself mentioned employee raises or bonuses. Neither did anything in the Library’s own Funding and Budget FAQs, or in its Referendum Information sheet, or in the campaign mailer sent out by the referendum folks. And for good reason: neither the Library employees nor the referendum folks wanted the taxpayers/voters even to think about whether any of the extra $4 million in total funding would go for employee raises and bonuses.
Just like the way the Director, the former Board majority, and the employees emphatically denied and ridiculed any suggestion that last summer’s Sunday Library closings were in any way related to last year’s employee raises.
As one of those trustees who cast a “no” vote at that April 21 meeting, the easiest thing to do would have been to rubber-stamp whatever the Director proposed. That’s what past Library boards had been doing for over a decade, even if it meant deficit spending to the point of closing the Library’s doors on summer Sundays,and cutting other hours. And the reason they did that is because they never cared enough to ask the basic questions that should be sine qua non inquiries before taxpayer money is used for additional employee compensation:
“Is the Library better today than it was a year ago?”
“Are the employees providing more and/or better service than they did a year ago?”
“Does the Library provide greater value to the taxpayers than it did a year ago?”
None of those questions, or any variants of them, were answered or even addressed by the Director or by the employees, or by the referendum folks, prior to that April 21 vote. Instead, all that was offered were arguments along the lines of the contents of a letter which the refendum folks sent to the Trustees two days ago, which all boil down to: “Library staff members deserve a modest wage increase in line with that being received by other City employees.”
In public employment that’s what’s known as an “entitlement.” Because here in Illinois, just showing up for your public-sector job is usually reason enough for a raise, especially if other public employees are getting raises.
What those of us on the Board considered, however, were a variety of facts that suggested the answer to all three of those sine qua non questions was “no” – including the Library’s own reports showing: (a) a consistent decline in Library visits to their lowest level in 10 years; (b) a decline in Library circulation to the lowest level in six years; (c) a decline in Library program attendance to the lowest level in 9 years; and (d) even a slight decline in the number of Library card-holders and the number of cardholders actually using their cards to check out items.
And, as Trustee Pat Lamb pointed out, Library employees had received raises over the past four years that averaged in excess of the increases in the Consumer Price Index.
Those of us who have been entrusted with the stewardship of the Library realize that the additional $1 million/year in referendum money the voters gave us for the next four years carries additional responsibilities for using it wisely. That means making sure that, first and foremost, the Library is put on a sound and sustainable financial footing by the time those four years are up.
It also means improving the Library and its operations so that it looks, feels, and IS a better facility – not only for its regular users but, also, for the occasional user and even those non-user taxpayers who are funding it without getting any direct benefit in return.
That requires more from both the Board and Staff than acting merely as custodians and doing the same old same old for the next four years. That requires improving and even re-inventing what the Library does, how well and efficiently it does it, and the space in which it does it – so that the Library’s performance metrics start demonstrating something better than the lemming-like following of some “national trend” that has become the alibi du jour anytime those metrics are questioned.
If the Director and Staff can figure out ways of doing that, maybe next year they will have some tangible achievements, instead of just a purported entitlement, to justify a request for additional compensation.
Let’s hope so…for the community’s sake.
Robert J. Trizna
Editor and publisher
Member, Park Ridge Library Board
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