Something’s missing from discussions of DeKalb Public Library’s property tax levy

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Aurora. Galesburg. O’Fallon. Naperville. Waukegan.

What do these Illinois communities have in common? They are all home rule municipalities that have refused to raise — or have even reduced — the property tax levies of their city libraries at least once since 2010.

Are there home rule municipalities that always say yes to increased levies? Yes. But they, unlike DeKalb, understand there’s a point where they can say no.

(Sycamore understands too.)

DeKalb has home rule. The last time DeKalb reduced a DeKalb Public Library (DKPL) levy request was in 2008. No problem. Then suddenly in 2010, the city council was told that it was no longer allowed to adjust the library levy. Nobody has ever adequately explained this.

Rendering the change even more curious, no less an authority than Ancel Glink, which is probably the premier law firm specializing in local government law in Illinois, has this to say about home rule power in setting library levies:

A non-home rule municipality does not appear to have authority to modify the library board’s levy so long as the amount of the levy is statutorily authorized…A home rule municipality, on the other hand, may use its constitutional authority to decide whether it wants to extend its home rule power to its municipal library to allow the library to levy an amount that would otherwise exceed the library board’s statutory restraints (the tax cap). A library associated with a home rule municipality cannot require that the municipality share or extend its home rule powers if the municipality chooses not to do so.

So the question is not whether the city has taxation authority over the library, but about where DKPL’s taxation authority ends and DeKalb’s begins.

Public libraries in Illinois are basically either local libraries or district libraries. DeKalb public library is a local library, specifically a local municipal library, and a component unit of City of DeKalb. The distinction is not as simple as it seems. Local libraries are not 100% dependent on their municipalities, and do have some of the powers of special districts, including taxation, under the Illinois Local Library Act, which sets the default maximum at .15% of district EAV.

The rate is a cap for the library, but it’s a minimum for the municipality, because the cap asserts an independent authority to tax that protects the library’s levy from getting zeroed out by its host.

In addition to the specific statutory cap, the Act also sets down procedures for a library to have a referendum to set the rate cap at a higher level, say at .21% or .38%, or whatever level referendum supporters make a successful case for, up to a maximum of .60%.

Just for illustrative purposes, let’s say the city held a referendum in the 1960s that raised DKPL’s property tax rate cap to .23%. The library can levy whatever it wants under that cap without permission from anyone else. But the moment a levy request results in a rate that exceeds .23%, it is up to the city council to say yay or nay to any or all of the request that exceeds the cap.

In 2008 (for real) DKPL brought to council a request that translated into a rate of .27%. Council debated the request, and set the levy at a rate of .25%. But then two years later, council was advised that it did not have the authority to reduce an even higher request of .30%; and in 2016 the library’s rate reached .49% and council was again told it had to approve whatever levy request the DKPL board placed before it.

This rule change is sketchy behavior. Clearly, the board’s taxation powers are not without limit, as is true for library boards generally. What is the limit for our library that’s not dependent on a “boost” from the city’s home rule authority? Can DKPL prove it has a referendum cap of .50% or more? It seems unlikely. The city council should not approve another library levy until the truth about the library’s statutory/referendum taxation authority is firmly and publicly established.