Following weeks of consideration and amid heated public debate within the community, the Mississippi Valley Library District’s board of trustees has settled on the district’s tax levy request — the amount of its budget it hopes to collect through property taxes — for the current fiscal year.
At the heart of the discussion was whether the library district should increase its 2023-24 levy by 8%, as proposed by the executive director to keep up with the rising minimum wage, or closer to 5% as suggested by some recently-elected trustees like Board President Jeanne Lomax. The estimated difference between a 5% and 8% increase in the tax levy is about $34,500, according to district budget documents.
At Monday evening’s board meeting, after hearing more than 50 minutes of public comment, the board voted unanimously in approval of the 8% increase.
“I think this shows what a successful grassroots movement does, when the community comes together,” Michael Treece, a former trustee and library advocate, said of the result. “Finally, the right conclusion came about from this evening, so I’m leaving here on a high.”
“I think it’s good all the way around for us to do our due diligence. We’re in a very tight economy right now. The taxpayers are a big concern,” Lomax said after the meeting.
The library district consists of two libraries — the Collinsville Memorial Public Library and the Fairmont City Library Center — serving more than 34,000 members. The Blum House next door to the Collinsville library is also a part of the district.
The 8% increase is close to the maximum allowed due to caps on specific funds within the budget and will be enough to cover the anticipated increase in staff costs with the increasing minimum wage in Illinois, according to Executive Director Kyla Waltermire.
It will not be enough to cover some rising costs associated with inflation, like for paper or utilities, nor will it cover the potential replacement of the aging elevator at the Collinsville library or one of the air handlers that’s faltered at the Fairmont City library. Separate fundraising efforts will be necessary to cover those expenses, Waltermire said.
The budget discussion came seven months after the spring election resulted in turnover of four of seven spots on the library district’s board of trustees. Five candidates were backed by Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler — a Republican currently running for re-election — following his vocal opposition to three drag queen storytime events hosted at metro-east libraries in 2021 and 2022. Four of the five candidates supported by Prenzler got elected in April.
Since the election, fervent library supporters have been attending board meetings and calling out some of the conservative trustees’ statements regarding the LGBTQ+ community and actions they find concerning, such as the removal of bookmarks that had a rainbow on them from the library.
In the weeks leading up to Monday, they were ringing the alarm bells that those conservative board members were vying to “defund” the library by seeking less than an 8% increase and calling on the public to attend Monday evening’s tax hearing to express their support for the library district and ask the board to levy an appropriate amount to ensure the continuation of vital services to the community.
More than 50 members of the public attended the tax hearing and board meeting that followed it. Fifteen individuals — some longtime residents and some new — provided comments during the public input portion of the hearing.
Many urged the board to go for the 8% increase and spoke of the library district’s impact on their lives personally and the well-being of the community. Others spoke in support of the recently-elected trustees and said the word “defunding” was being misused. Some lamented the hostility that had arisen and asked people to come together to find solutions.
Following the meeting, Board President Jeanne Lomax said the budget is a complicated issue and that it’s a board’s No. 1 job to know the finances of its district.
“It’s a conversation. It’s a give and take. We’re looking at the finances. We’re seeing what’s needed, what we can scale back on. That’s the process that played out,” she said.
Asking a lot of questions helps everybody on the board and in the public to better understand the process, she added.
She said “there’s been a lot of misinformation put out,” adding that an increase in the levy does not constitute defunding. “It’s got a lot of people riled up … and it’s unfortunate.”
With regard to the removal of bookmarks and the general direction she seeks for the library district, Lomax said she doesn’t want the library pushing any sort of agenda and wants all patrons to feel welcome.
Waltermire said it’s been fantastic to see so many people involved in a way they haven’t been before, but that it does also make it challenging.
“People are speaking up both in favor of certain actions or against certain actions, and trying to balance the needs of the community is always what we’re challenged with,” she said.
“I’m ready to move on and get started on the next thing.”
Libraries — like schools districts, fire departments and other public institutions — get a large chunk of their annual budget from local property taxes.
Every fall, taxing districts receive an estimate from the county or counties of the “equalized assessed value” within their district, which is the total value of properties determined through a complex calculation. Districts look at the estimated EAV and determine how much they need to collect from it, holding a “truth in taxation” hearing if their levy request is 5% or more higher than their previous year’s request.
Then, the county determines how much of the request the taxing district will get, and in the spring, it collects the taxes on the district’s behalf and determines each district’s tax rate, which is the percentage of a property’s assessed value the owner must pay on their tax bill.
At that point, the library district has numbers to work off of for the creation of its actual budget, Waltermire said.
With property values going up in recent years, so too have the EAVs in many districts as well as their tax levy requests, including the Mississippi Valley Library District.
In 2022, the taxable EAV within the library district was about $613.84 million, according to county tax records. For 2023, it is estimated at $620.93 million, so about $7 million more is available to be taxed.
With the 8% increase in the levy request, a Collinsville house with the median value of $182,000 could expect to see an increase of $9.38 on their tax bill from the library, according to district budget documents. A Fairmont City house valued at $100,000 could expect an increase of $4.95.
An increase in a taxing district’s levy request does not always lead to an increase in the tax rate, however. The Mississippi Valley Library District’s tax rate has decreased every year since 2017, county tax records show.