Credit: Johnny Sampson

On November 16, as the City Council was engaging in a group embrace of Mayor Emanuel’s 2012 budget, I drove to Wilmette to visit its library.

As you may or may not know, Wilmette is one of the wealthiest communities in the country, with a median household income well above $100,000. Sure, the residents have more money to spend, but they’ve never been afraid to tax themselves to finance the best schools, parks, and libraries for their people. Especially their children, like—oh, just to pick one lil’ feller who grew up there—Rahm Emanuel.

I’ve had libraries and Mayor Emanuel on my mind a lot lately, since one of the central themes of his budget—the unanimously approved one—is that he made the tough cuts his predecessor, Mayor Daley, was afraid to make.

At the top of the cut list were the libraries, because—well, I’m not sure why. It seems to contradict Emanuel’s push to give kids a longer school day. Maybe his theory is that after spending all that extra time in the classroom the kids will be too exhausted to go to the library.

Whatever his reasons, Emanuel proposed to cut $11 million of a $6.3 billion budget from the libraries. After an outcry from aldermen, librarians, activists, and residents, he agreed to trim the cuts to $8 million.

For that, aldermen hailed him as a benevolent ruler. Then they hailed him again. And again. And again. And—hey, there are 50 of them in the City Council, and as usual, the mayoral benevolence bar remains low in Chicago.

Though you wouldn’t know it from your ever courageous aldermen, there were many reasons to oppose Emanuel’s budget.

First of all, it’s regressive—it depends on a massive hike in water and sewer taxes, which hit all users at the same rate regardless of income.

Second, it’s cruel, closing six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics and forcing poor people who have nowhere else to turn to travel to already overcrowded facilities across town.

Third, it’s deceptive, diverting at least $70 million in water and sewer funds to pay for things having little to do with either water or sewers.

And, finally, it’s just baffling, especially the library cuts. Emanuel could offset those cuts simply by spending a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s got sitting in the tax increment financing reserves for lord knows what reason.

Anyway, on to my trip to Wilmette, I stopped at the Chicago Public Library branch in Rogers Park, at 6907 N. Clark.

The good news: the joint was jumping. The bad news: there weren’t enough workers to handle the crowd—and this was before the system made Emanuel’s cuts.

At the front desk, one incredibly harried librarian tried to work her way through a long line of patrons while the nearby pile of books and CDs in need of reshelving grew higher.

Almost every seat was filled and every computer taken. Lots of kids were there doing lots of homework. Several of them waited in line to talk to the reference librarian, who was patiently showing another kid how to use the computerized card catalog to find books he needs for a report.

As I looked around, I was encouraged to see that any smart and determined neighborhood kid can get a good jump on the classics—Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare—just by wandering through the stacks.

Curiously enough, though, they don’t have Boss by Mike Royko. So any Rogers Parker who wants to read the classic book on Chicago politics will have to order it from another library—then wait for it to be shipped and shelved, most likely by a professional librarian doing tasks once handled by clerks, who were axed as part of Mayor Emanuel’s budget cuts.

On the way out, I noticed the library’s posted hours: Monday and Wednesday, noon to eight; Tuesday and Thursday, ten to six; Friday and Saturday, nine to five; closed on Sunday. All neighborhood branches are closed on Sunday.

Better get your work done fast, kids—especially if you need those computers . . .

From there I headed north to Wilmette—only six miles away. The first thing I saw as I approached the library was a big sign announcing Sunday hours from one to nine. It’s also open from nine to nine Monday through Friday and on Saturdays from nine to five. Sure, it’s the town’s central library, not a branch, but the entire population of Wilmette is less than half that of Rogers Park.

And what a great library—four floors, lots of space. At the front desk, I counted seven employees ready to help the one patron in line. In the main reading room they had a fireplace with a roaring fire. OK, so it wasn’t an actual wood-burning fire, but still—next time, I’m bringing a hot toddy.

I roamed from room to room—most overseen by its own librarian. There’s a children’s room and a teens’ room and a computer room with a bunch of terminals. I’m not sure if there’s anyone in Wilmette without a computer, but just in case.

The magazine and periodical collection sprawled across two floors. You name it, they’ve got it, including esoteric publications such as Southern Review, Victorian Homes, Physics Today, Yachting (well, it is Wilmette), and Hustler.

Just kidding about that last one—they don’t really have Hustler.

But I was able to find the latest edition of Education Weekly, which was headlined: “Study Finds No Clear Edge for Charter Schools.”

Duh—I could have told you that. Oh, wait—I did last week.

In the nonfiction section, I found not one but two copies of Boss. For all I know, this is where, 40 or so years ago, young Rahm first developed his great dream to be mayor of Chicago, even if he never talked about that dream until right before Mayor Daley left office. But I digress.

Look, I’m not hating on Wilmette, as the kids say. As I said earlier, they do things right—they get the best they can buy for their kids. They certainly don’t divert hundreds of millions from their schools and libraries to feed the TIFs, like we do in Chicago. They don’t even have TIFs in Wilmette. One could say they don’t need them. Of course, one could say that about downtown Chicago too.

Come to think of it, Mayor Emanuel could have offset any library cuts with the $7 million in TIF dollars he wants to hand out to a developer to build a grocery store across the street from an already-existing grocery store in Greektown.

Speaking of wasting TIF dollars: the mayor could hire even more shelvers and librarians—and maybe even open neighborhood branches on weeknights and Sundays—by taking back the $15 million the city seems so desperate to throw at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, one of the world’s richest commodity houses.

Ironically, a number of those CME traders probably live in Wilmette. If you think about it, Emanuel is effectively helping them offset the high property taxes they pay for their lovely library.

Just another way for Mayor Emanuel to say thanks to his old townies while making life difficult for his new ones.