A contentious issue festering between village hall and the Oak Park Public Library finally may have been killed, if not resolved. And one trustee says he is “deeply disturbed” by the outcome.

Since the end of 2007, the library and village have traded barbs over a pot of money. Village officials claimed they were owed some $85,000 for maintaining the 79-space garage for the library during 2007.

Over the past year, both sides exchanged information, trying to reach an agreement on what to do. After a year of back-and-forth, the library said forget it.

“We believe it is time to move on,” Library board President Dee Leonard said in a letter to the village president last month. “The board will not be discussing this matter further, and I have told our executive director that no more staff time should be spent on the issue.”

At a recent meeting, Trustee Ray Johnson said he was “deeply disturbed” by the letter, as he believed the sides were working toward a compromise. He said the village ignored years of back dollars for the garage, and it was being just in only asking for one year of funds.

“That’s why this bothers me so much,” he said. “We’ve gone above and beyond trying to be fair.”

On the other side, library officials said, no matter how the financial estimates were presented, they just weren’t making sense.

Thousands tallied

The feud first started in late 2007, when Village Manager Tom Barwin went searching for costs to cut from the 2008 budget.

The village had been operating the garage beneath the library since it opened in late 2003, tallying hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses. Barwin found that, according to the original agreement, if the garage wasn’t turning a profit, the village could bill the library for non-staff expenses.

As a peace offering, Barwin said the village would wipe out the first three years of expenses and ask the library for $135,000, mostly for security and equipment.

The library countered, saying that number was too high, and was calculated based on an average of all five of Oak Park’s garages. After further finagling, the village came back with a total of $93,000.

But in early 2008, the library said it likely couldn’t pay those costs until the following year. Shortly after, the village completely pulled out of operating the garage. Library Director Dee Brennan said that was a tough spot to put the organization in, and they wished there had been more discussion.

“I didn’t learn about parking garages in library school,” Brennan told Wednesday Journal at the time. “So this is a new thing I’ll have to add to my repertoire.”

In April, the library and village officially terminated their agreement, and the village started asking for $85,000. Things quieted down, but the requests started again publicly in October.

In late November, Village President David Pope held a meeting with the library’s board hoping to finally resolve the matter.

In a subsequent meeting, the library board went into executive session, and unanimously voted against paying the village anything.

“We don’t have that money in our budget, and it doesn’t look like we’re gong to have the money in the next year or the next year,” Leonard said.

Costs were too high

Brennan said the library went into closed session to discuss all this because of the possibility of litigation. She said the library’s attorney recommended doing so, but the library has no intent of taking legal action against the village.

“Given that there was this dispute, sometimes litigation is the result of a dispute that can’t be resolved,” Brennan said.

Leonard invited Pope to the meeting to give him a chance to speak, but she said various factors led to their no vote.

The library had budgeted for some garage expenses during those previous years but never received invoices for the costs. And with no reporting going on at the time, Leonard says the library has no way of knowing for sure if the costs presented in 2008 were accurate. Since they never received bills, the library sliced that line item – which started at $8,000 in 2004 and ended at $2,000 in 2007 – out of its budget in 2008.

Library officials also questioned the excessively high security costs, which made up the bulk of the bill. In 2007, the village was billing $7,777 a month for 24-hour security, totaling about $93,000 for the year. Total expenses tallied approximately $113,000 that year, minus $27,000 in revenues, producing the final figure of $85,000.

Running the garage on its own in 2008, the library estimates that it spent $23,000 and earned $27,000, which results in a $4,000 profit.

The library felt the village was paying too much for security all along, and if the village issued bills over the years, it would’ve been able to see and correct that. Leonard said the only way they could’ve paid the $85,000 was to either raise taxes or close all the libraries for a day, and neither option was acceptable.

“Who would suffer is the employees, and the board doesn’t feel they should suffer for mismanagement,” she said.

Jim Egeberg, the previous board president, feels the issue has been overplayed.

“I would think they have larger issues to deal with than simply trying to say they want to take taxpayer money from one pot to another pot,” Egeberg said.

At a board meeting last week, Pope suggested the village should schedule an executive session in the future to decide how to respond to the library’s decision.

Litigation would be the likely topic of that meeting, but Barwin said he isn’t recommending that course of action.

“I think we spent a year communicating back and forth, sending folks over to explain the bills,” he said. “We waived three years worth of charges right out of the box. We’re working on an environment of cooperation and collaboration. It just feels like we’ve been given the stiff arm.”

“Puzzled” and “disappointed,” Barwin said he wishes the library had taken the vote a long time ago. On the other side, library officials say they took the time because they wanted to go over the numbers carefully.

“If we had just been told up front that they were never going to honor this contract in any way, shape or form, we probably wouldn’t have wasted 200 man hours on information and document requests,” Barwin said.

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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