Something Odd About the Public Library Construction Grant Program


Because the local library applied for a state construction grant in 2012, I decided to read up on these grants. One result of the research is doubt that all the money from a new library grant “pot” has all gone to libraries — but I am having a difficult time finding out for sure. This is a progress report for citizen watchdogs and others interested in state level grant programs, the Illinois State Library and/or the Freedom of Information Act.

Sandwich Public Library found out about its $1.6 million construction grant award months ago, but word is just now circulating. DeKalb Public Library was notified in July that it wouldn’t receive an award this fiscal year, yet suddenly now it’s getting $8.5 million from the state for its planned expansion.

The questions that arise out of these announcements — and their peculiar timing — are related to what I would describe as an uncharacteristic lack of transparency by the Illinois State Library in administering a $50 million construction grant program. I’ve used the Internet and, just lately, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to try to part the curtains.

Though the FOIA adventure continues, having local libraries and their good fortunes in the news seems a reasonable excuse to lay out the story so far, so here goes.

Library Grants in Illinois
The Illinois State Library (ISL) is a department of the Office of the Secretary of State (SoS) so I will refer to it in the rest of the post as ISL/SoS.

ISL/SoS administers several statewide grants. There’s one for technology to “bridge the digital divide” and one for a mentoring program, just to give a couple examples.

Of library construction grant programs there are two. One of them is the Live & Learn Construction Grant, a relatively small grant awarded annually to libraries for projects such as replacing roofs or improving accessibility to facilities. The other is the Illinois Public Library Construction Grant, new for FY2013 beginning July 1, 2012, which helps fund new library construction and expansions.

It’s primarily the latter grant we’re concerned with, but sometimes handy to be able to distinguish the two when news sources are vague, or for comparison purposes.

The Illinois Public Library Construction Grant Act
The public act that made the grant possible is part of the state’s 2009 capital bill, with grant funding pulled from the Build Illinois Bond Fund.*

The Act itself sets the basic eligibility requirements (e.g., public libraries qualify, private ones don’t) and five defined priority areas of need; it assigns to ISL/SoS the task of setting standards for ranking eligible libraries within each priority area, which it did, in part with a point system.**

Also important to the grant process is the Grant Index. Based upon a measurement of per capita Equalized Assessed Valuation (EAV) of taxable property, the index predetermines the most basic applicant qualification (with the wealthiest districts eliminated from consideration) as well as the state’s share, percentage-wise, of eligible construction costs.

For FY2013 there were 47 applicants with grant requests totaling $112 million. The state’s appropriation, however, is $50 million, so only 15 of the applicants were initially notified that they had received grant awards.

With a list of 47 qualified, ranked applicants you might think ISL/SoS started with the top-ranked library and proceeded down the line with the grant awards until the entire $50 million was spoken for.

But it may not be that simple.

Here’s Where It Gets Messy
Written into the Public Library Construction Act is a provision that automatically gives eligible Chicago libraries 20% of the annual grant appropriation, leaving the rest to non-Chicago libraries.

Does this mean the 15 awardees include the Chicago libraries and the whole $50 mil, or not? I’ve read one article that suggests the Chicago portion was dealt with separately and that the remaining $40 million was split among 15 downstate winners – but I am unable to confirm this.

The math so far doesn’t shed enough light, either. There evidently was no statewide press release from ISL/SoS, and on my own I have located news for only eight downstate winners so far, including DeKalb.***

Speaking of DeKalb: Who dropped off the list to free up a grant for presumed 16th-ranked DeKalb Public Library?

Was the dropout even a library?

Here’s why I ask. Check out this 2009 email, obtained under FOIA by Mac McIntyre of DeKalb County Online, in which DeKalb Library director Dee Coover summarized other emails that comment on the construction grants. Summary #6, which is attributed to Peoria attorney and statewide library consultant Phil Lenzini, refers to an appropriation of $50 million in the 2009 capital bill “for museums and libraries” and to an announcement that the Peoria Riverfront Museum was appropriated $5 million of the $50 million. Items #8 and #11 speculate how this may have occurred as an earmark.

I was able to find a local announcement for $50 million in grant money for museums, from which the pledged $5 million for the Riverfront Museum was supposed to come. However, I’ve not been able to locate a matching $50 million appropriation for the Illinois State Museum/Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which would normally administer a public museum capital grant and to which only $15 million has been allocated for FY2013 for grants to cover the needs of some 50 public museums in Illinois.

That’s not to say it’s not in there someplace, but at this point I’d almost bet that the $50 million referred to in the article is actually the library money.

Meanwhile, making public the official list of ranked applicants would help us determine whether one or more organizations that aren’t libraries have gotten pieces of library construction money through “special legislation” appropriations.

Unfortunately, the request made for this information was denied.

In another post I’ll discuss the FOIA request and process.

* Three things to keep in mind about the capital bill that established the new library construction grant program. 1) A few things might have gotten “tweaked” since 2009 that I haven’t picked up on — legislation available online is not always up-to-date. 2) You may recall that the 2009 capital bill was immediately challenged on state constitutional grounds and its constitutionality was not upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court until mid-2011; this is why initial cycles for new grant programs were delayed until this fiscal year. 3) Not one penny of these grants has actually been released, because libraries must first prove that their shares of construction funding have been secured. ISL/SoS has based its denial of the FOIA request on this fact — I’ll discuss it more in a later post.

** DeKalb Public Library, apparently ranked 16th in line for a grant, applied as a Priority 2 library, which is a facility with aged buildings or communities that have outgrown their spaces. So, it’s probably safe to assume all the libraries that received awards must be Priority 1 or Priority 2 (Priority 1 being reserved for libraries that have been destroyed through fire or natural disaster).

*** Here are public libraries/districts that expect to receive Public Library Construction Grant Act Program grants in FY2013, along with the award amounts in millions. Since the awards add up to less than $30 million, there are obviously a few libraries I’ve missed — or perhaps a couple of museums?

  • Aurora, $10.8
  • DeKalb, $8.5
  • Macomb, $2.4
  • Six Mile Regional, Granite City, $2.2
  • Halstead in Carlyle, $1.6
  • Sandwich, $1.6
  • Farmington, $1.5
  • Rushville, $1.2
  • The Plainfield Library director reported in her blog that Plainfield did not obtain a grant because it ranked somewhere in the middle of the Priority 2 libraries. Broadview likewise was notified that it did not rank high enough to get a grant before the appropriation ran out.
    Additional Source: Full text of Public Act 096-0037