CRYSTAL LAKE – The 3-foot-deep pile of books and DVDs waiting for Crystal Lake Public Library employees on Monday gives a mute but strong rebuttal to the argument that the internet and e-books are making libraries irrelevant.
The book drop empties out into a tiny room, forcing librarians to stack the books onto carts to sort elsewhere – it can take up to three days to record into the library’s computer system that checked-out items put into the book drop were returned. Modern library technology exists that would take it off patrons’ records in seconds.
To library supporters, the hassle is a footnote in a book-sized list of problems with the 126 W. Paddock St. library that are so acute that the only solution is to build a new one. Limited parking and steep, crumbling steps give access to a library that was not built to accommodate modern heating, venting, air conditioning, lighting and technology, Library Director Kathryn I. Martens said.
Voters will be asked an advisory referendum Nov. 8 as to whether the city should borrow $30.1 million to replace it at the same site. The City Council voted last week, 7-0, to put the question on the ballot after the Crystal Lake Public Library Board presented the conclusions reached by a community focus group it assembled.
“The public library is an integral part of the educational fabric of the community, and this building does not allow us to provide a 21st-century public library,” Martens said.
Although the ballot question is nonbinding, the voters’ answer will give direction to the City Council, which has the power to borrow the money without a binding referendum. But in a county with what several studies conclude is one of the highest property tax burdens in the nation, in a state in which people are leaving at the highest rate of all 50, the question, as well as any decision by the City Council, will be a hard sell.
Library board members want to build a new, 75,000-square-foot library at the site, which would nearly double the size of the existing 40,000-square-foot facility. The wording of the referendum states that building and equipping the new library would increase property taxes an average of $132 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.
The library first moved to its current site in 1952, after 40 years of hopping around from a private home to the high school to the city heating plant, according to historical records. Voters approved spending the money in 1965 to demolish the old building and construct the current facility. The original part of the current library was built on the old one’s foundation – the soils underneath are unstable and the library cannot store books in that part because of the added weight.
Two subsequent expansions in 1986 and 1995 brought the library to its current size, but studies after that second expansion began to conclude that a new facility in the wake of ongoing growth would be the most logical next step. Voters in 2004 rejected an advisory referendum to build a new library, prompting the library to renovate in a short-term fix they dubbed “Project Shoehorn.”
But the library board said it has done all it can with the building – a list of needed repairs that would do nothing to address the building’s underlying problems totals $9.1 million, Martens said.
The library board earlier this year convened a community group, called Future of Crystal Lake Library Under Study, to weigh the options of repairing it, expanding it again, or replacing it. After four meetings from March through June, the group overwhelmingly recommended replacement.
Supporters and opponents who are reaching out to the Northwest Herald are lining up along traditional lines. Backers say the cost is minimal for a much-needed project that would reap large benefits to the community. Opponents say they can’t afford any more tax increases.
To supporters such as resident Martha Mitchell, residents might not know what a library can truly do for them because the current facility does not come close to allowing it to reach its full potential.
“If I vote for more money to be used for the library, at least I know my money will be carefully and thoughtfully spent, and I’ll get more out of the results. If you don’t use a library, you are missing out on one of the best resources available to you. Shame on us if we can’t see a way to provide our community with a better library facility,” she wrote.
Opponent Douglas Knight, a Prairie Grove resident who pays property taxes on his Crystal Lake business, said that the scope of the project is too large, and he questioned just how representative the focus group was of the community. Others, such as retired resident Gary Komosa, 63, said he can barely afford the $12,000 property-tax bill on his home as it is.
“Are these people not paying attention to the tax issue and economy in Illinois? We can get by very nicely with what we have. The library is not in distress … Illinois is,” Komosa wrote to the newspaper.
Martens said she and the library board understands taxpayers’ pain, and that the decision to pursue a new facility did not come lightly, and only after years of trying to pursue other, less expensive fixes.
“I believe a public library provides some of the value that we have in our community. If we don’t do something about our public library, it will continue to degrade and not be the value we want it to be. It adds to our property values, and it adds to our quality of life,” Martens said.