Measured Success | Budgets & Funding

At EveryLibrary and LJ, we tracked 184 library elections in 2016. Nationwide, over 3.7 million voters cast a ballot in what turned out to be the most contentious election cycle of a generation. Libraries won and lost in blue cities and red counties alike.

ljx170201webReferenda25At EveryLibrary and LJ, we tracked 184 library elections in 2016. Forty-seven were for bonds to update libraries or to build new 21st-century facilities; 68 percent of those measures passed. Another 121 ballots were for operating expenses to field programs, build collections, and improve staffing, and nearly 86 percent of those were successful. Sixteen were ballot issues related to governance, either creation/annexation to or withdrawal from a library district. Accounting for more than half of the library voting this year were just three states; Michigan, New York, and Ohio had a combined 90 operating or building measures, with all but nine passing. Nationwide, over 3.7 million voters cast a ballot in what turned out to be the most contentious election cycle of a generation. Libraries won and lost in blue cities and red counties alike.

Many operating fund measures asked voters simply to renew or continue the operating level of the library as it was. In those we can track, there does not appear to be a difference between pass/fail rates between small dollar amounts/percentage changes and larger increases. For example, the Nevada County Library, CA, doubled its tax base from 1/8¢ to 1/4¢. In Missouri, the Mid-Continent Library passed a $12 million per annum operating increase and the Moniteau County Library got a $9,800 per annum increase. The voters are not doing any math when they are at the ballot box.

For building bonds, there does not seem to be a “break point” under which you can always pass a new building measure. While only 57% of bonds over $10 million passed, as did 71% for those less than $10 million, we’d caution that this is a misleading indicator. Because of regional variations in the cost of building design and construction, there isn’t a solid way to compare among projects, and voters have no frame of reference among states, regions, or even the next town over. Each building effort stands on its own. If the comparison point is raised to $15 million, the pass/fail rate basically evens out.

It’s important to note that there wasn’t much difference in pass/fail results between libraries on primary election ballots vs. the general election ballot in November. If we remove the Michigan, New York, and Ohio libraries from the sample, the remaining wins and losses are distributed across the various election days fairly evenly. In Illinois, where seven out of 11 library referenda failed, there was a historically large “under vote” for president, meaning that more people skipped voting for anyone at the top of the ticket but filled in their ballot for congress, judges, and local issues such as libraries.

These numbers are very much in line with the five-year running average for library measures. Elections for operating measures pass about 87 percent of the time across all presidential, congressional, and state and municipal off-cycle years. Building measures passed on average 58 percent of the time, but there are fewer bonds each cycle, and more peaks and valleys between years. What appears to be holding true is that library leaders should not decide to go—or not to go—to the ballot simply because of what type of election is on tap, or who is on the top of the ticket.

Each campaign Every­Library worked with in 2016 asked us if they should expect a “Trump Voter Effect” on their library question. At first glance, with about 70% of library measures passing, it looks like the answer is no. The top of the ticket problems didn’t trickle down to where library measures live.

However, we think it is important to recall that back in November 2008, when the economy was headed into a full bore recession, library elections were much more successful than they should have been considering the fiscal cliff that everyone was about to fall over. We suspect that the 2016 library elections will be remembered in a similar way, as the last one before voter attitudes shifted dramatically. At EveryLibrary, we are concerned that in 2017 and beyond, libraries will not be exempt from the broader trends of the electorate. While the “top of the ticket” did not determine the results for libraries in 2016, it remains to be seen whether over time voters will continue to calcify around antitax, antigovernment, or “anti-other” rhetoric, and if so, will library tax measures suffer as a result?


Fayetteville Fayetteville Public Library Pass 59 41
Pocahontas Randolph County Libraries Fail 42 58
Loomis Loomis Library & Community Learning Center Pass 60 40
Nevada City Nevada County Community Library Pass 69 31
Sacramento Sacramento Public Library Pass 79 21
San Diego San Diego Public Library Pass
San Rafael San Rafael Public Library Pass 69 31
Santa Paula Blanchard Community Library Pass 73 28
Santa Rosa Sonoma County Library Pass 71 29
Stockton Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library Pass 74 26
Fort Collins Poudre River Public Library Pass 67 33
Granby Grand County Library District Pass 57 43
La Veta La Veta Regional Library District Pass 66 34
Mancos Mancos Library District Pass 66 34
Pitkin Basalt Regional Library District Pass 62 38
Middleburg Middleburg-Clay Hill Public Library Pass
Hayden Community Library Network Fail 50 50
Crest Hill White Oak Library District Fail 41 59
Maroa Maroa Public Library District Pass 52 48
North Riverside North Riverside Public Library Fail 44 56
Plainfield Plainfield Public Library District - Operations Fail 31 69
Lafayette Lafayette Public Library System Pass 58 42
Barryton Barryton Public Library Pass 69 31
Belleville Belleville Area District Library Pass 51 49
Cheboygan Cheboygan Area Public Library Fail 43 57
Commerce Commerce Township Pass 60 40
Township Community Library
Croswell Aitkin Memorial District Library Pass 69 31
Dexter Dexter District Library Pass 72 28
Eastpointe Eastpointe Memorial Library Pass 64 36
Empire Glen Lake Community Library Pass 81 19
Ferndale Ferndale Public Library Pass 65 35
Grant Grant Area District Library Pass 56 44
Gwinn Forsyth Township Library Fail 47 53
Harper Woods Harper Woods Public Library Pass 76 24
Hazel Park Hazel Park Memorial Library Pass 68 32
Holland Herrick District Library Pass 86 14
Holly Holly Township Library Pass 78 22
Jackson Jackson District Library Pass 66 34
Marquette Peter White Public Library Pass 77 23
Mio Oscoda County Library Pass 54 46
Nashville Putnam District Library Pass 61 39
North Adams North Adams Community Memorial Library Pass 54 46
Pontiac Pontiac Public Library Pass 81 19
Port Sanilac Sanilac District Library Pass 62 38
Remus Wheatland Township Library Pass 51 49
Remus Wheatland Township Library Pass 69 31
Roseville Roseville Public Library Pass 69 31
South Lyon Lyon Township Public Library Fail 43 57
Sturgis Sturgis District Library Pass 75 25
Suttons Bay Suttons Bay Bingham District Library Pass 64 36
Traverse City Traverse Area District Library Pass 76 25
Utica Utica Public Library Pass 74 26
Wallon Lake Crooked Tree District Library Pass 66 34
Watervliet Watervliet District Library Pass 78 22
Weidman Sherman Township Library Pass 75 25
White Pigeon White Pigeon Township Library Pass 84 16
Wixom Wixom Public Library Pass 80 20
California Moniteau County Library Pass 81 19
Independence Mid-Continent Public Library Pass 62 38
Monett Barry-Lawrence Regional Library Fail 45 55
Havre Havre-Hill County Library Pass 58 42
Livingston Livingston-Park County Library Fail 49 51
Gilmanton Gilmanton Year-Round Library Fail
Iron Works
Kingston Kingston Community Library Pass 51 49
Bernalillo Martha Liebert Public Library Pass 74 26
Albany Albany Public Library Pass 65 35
Clifton Park Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library Pass 85 15
East Greenbush East Greenbush Community Library Pass
Florida Florida Public Library Pass 90 10
Geneva Geneva Public Library Pass 72 28
Glens Falls Crandall Public Library Pass 57 43
Gloversville Gloversville Public Library Pass
Guilderland Guilderland Public Library Pass 69 31
Malta Round Lake Library Pass 69 31
New Rochelle New Rochelle Public Library Pass 71 29
Oneida Oneida Public Library Fail 45 55
Patterson Patterson Library Pass 63 37
Peekskill Field Library Pass 64 36
Poughkeepsie Poughkeepsie Public Library District Pass 61 39
Rhinecliff Morton Memorial Library Pass 65 35
Shandaken Phoenicia Library Pass 51 49
Syracuse Onondaga Free Library Pass 51 49
Utica Utica Public Library Pass 62 38
Warwick Albert Wisner Public Library Pass 88 12
Mayville Mayville Public Library Pass 70 30
Ada Ada Public Library Pass 75 25
Arcanum Arcanum Public Library Pass 68 32
Avon Lorain Public Library Pass 72 28
Avon Lake Avon Lake Public Library Pass 74 26
Bluffton Bluffton Public Library Pass 73 27
Bryan Williams County Public Library Pass 54 46
Cambridge Guernsey County District Public Library Pass 63 37
Columbus Grandview Heights Public Library Pass 74 26
Cuyahoga Falls Cuyahoga Falls Library Pass 72 28
Dover Dover Public Library Pass 77 23
Greenville Greenville Public Library Pass 65 35
Hudson Hudson Library & Historical Society Pass 68 32
Jefferson Henderson Memorial Public Library Pass 65 35
Lorain Lorain Public Library Pass 63 37
Louisville Louisville Public Library Fail 46 54
McArthur Herbert Wescoat Memorial Library Pass 64 36
Mount Gilead Mount Gilead Public Library Pass 52 48
Mount Sterling Mount Sterling Public Library Pass 61 39
Oberlin Oberlin Public Library Pass 76 24
Pataskala Pataskala Public Library Fail 48 52
Perrysburg Way Public Library Pass 65 35
Sheffield Lake Lorain Public Library Pass 60 40
Swanton Swanton Public Library Pass 73 27
Toledo Toledo-Lucas County Public Library Pass 65 35
Upper Arlington Upper Arlington Public Library Pass 76 24
Wadsworth Wadsworth Ella M. Everhard Public Library Pass 77 23
Wauseon Wauseon Public Library Pass 76 24
Wellington Herrick Memorial Library Fail 39 61
Wickliffe Wickliffe Public Library Pass 74 26
Veneta Fern Ridge Library District Fail 36 64
Jeannette Jeannette Public Library Pass 52 48
Woodstock Norman Williams Public Library Pass 76 24
West Richland Mid-Columbia Libraries Pass 52 48
Morgantown Morgantown Public Library Pass 62 38
Parkersburg Parkersburg & Wood County Public Library Pass 62 38
Tennerton Upshur County Public Library Fail 49 51

Organized opposition

The opposition to library ballots got louder and larger last year. In our 2015 election roundup, it looked as if the tone of national campaigns would become coarser and the opposition would become bolder in their attacks. However, we did not expect, nor were we prepared for, the Koch Brothers–funded Mega-PAC Americans for Prosperity (AFP) to launch attacks on—and help to defeat—at least two library ballots this year. Residents of the Illinois towns of Plainfield and Fox River Valley were the targets of robocalls and direct mail from the AFP Illinois chapter. They were targeted in the last few days of their campaigns, and “vote no” messages followed a specific “any tax is a bad tax” playbook, without addressing the substance of the plan for the communities. It worked.

Back in 2015, we identified the Tea Party and other organized local or statewide antitax agents such as the California Association of Realtors as significant potential sources of opposition to library funding measures. In 2016, local organized opposition from such groups continued their barrages against the library. For example, in Meridian, ID, the library was on the ballot with a stand-alone measure at the same time as the College of Western Idaho and the West Ada Park District. Although each had a legitimate need for funding, the local Tea Party decided to lump them all together and created a “vote no” campaign that targeted the three unrelated measures.

With big money groups such as AFP targeting libraries, we are seeing a huge shift in the fight between folks who believe in progressive tax policies vs. those who want limited government. Libraries are now included in a broader crusade to shrink or eliminate regulation in any form. In 2016, libraries were no longer immune, if they ever were.


2016 121 86% 14% 47 68% 32%
2015 123 94% 6% 21 43% 57%
2014 147 81% 19% 33 73% 27%
2013 146 88% 12% 30 63% 37%
2011 96 88% 12% 18 44% 56%
2010 220 87% 13% 29 55% 45%
2009 123 84% 16% 28 54% 46%
2008 42 74% 26% 27 67% 33%
2007 29 69% 31% 46 74% 26%
2006 69 74% 26% 36 64% 36%
AVERAGE 112 83% 18% 32 61% 40%

Rollbacks & dissolutions

In 2016, we saw an uptick in votes to dissolve or consolidate library districts, disconnect pockets of voters from library taxing districts, and even roll back tax rates for libraries. For example, in Illinois, voters in Macoupin and Jersey County voted to disconnect from the Brighton Memorial Library District, and voters in Cicero endorsed a referendum to consolidate the functions of the independent library district into the town. While a similar measure to disconnect Weber Township, IL, from the Brehm Memorial Library District failed, the board of Michigan’s Chassell Township wanted to remove itself so badly from the Portage County Library District that it ran the measure twice (in August and November). The Borough of Longport, NJ, likewise voted to withdraw from the Atlantic County Library System. The reasons for taking these measures to the ballot varied, but in every case, the results would lead either to a decreased library budget or lost autonomy for the board and staff in setting the budget in the future.

Libraries are particularly vulnerable to petition-driven initiatives that can place rollback measures on the ballot. Voters in Randolph County, AR, rejected a petition measure to lower the library tax rate from 1.4 to 1 mill, which would have cost the library roughly $81,000 annually. While this was the only such measure on any ballot this year, in April 2015, voters in Bollinger County, MO, voluntarily rolled back the library levy by half, and in 2009, the local Tea Party in Pulaski County, KY, initiated a petition drive that would have closed that library completely. We should recall that at press time, a Tea Party–authored case against Kentucky libraries that could roll back funding for 99 out of 104 libraries to at least 1979 levels was pending in the state’s Supreme Court.


Fayetteville Fayetteville Public Library Pass 56 44
Pine Bluff Jefferson County Library Pass 67 33
West Fork West Fork Municipal Library Pass 53 47
Bay Point Contra Costa County Library Fail 52 48
El Cerrito El Cerrito Library Fail 63 37
Oakley Contra Costa County Library Fail 55 45
Pleasant Hill Contra Costa County Library Pass 66 34
Santa Cruz Santa Cruz Public Libraries Pass 70 30
Norwood Lone Cone Library District Pass 58 42
Fleming Island Clay County Public Library Pass
Winter Park Winter Park Public Library Pass 51 49
Meridian Meridian Library District Fail 59 41
Bartonville Alpha Park Public Library District Pass 63 37
Brookfield Brookfield Public Library Fail 47 53
Crystal Lake Crystal Lake Public Library Fail 44 56
East Dundee Fox River Valley Public Library District Fail 34 66
Lombard Helen M. Plum Memorial Library Pass 53 47
Plainfield Plainfield Public Library District - Bond Fail 44 56
Stickney Stickney-Forest View Public Library District Pass 68 32
Jasper Jasper-Dubois County Library Pass 60 40
Allegan Allegan District Library Pass 59 41
Belleville Belleville Area District Library Pass 53 47
Gaylord Otsego County Library District Pass 60 40
South Lyon Lyon Township Public Library Fail 41 59
White Lake White Lake Township Library Pass 50 50
Cambridge Cambridge Public Library Fail 45 55
Fergus Falls Fergus Falls Public Library Pass 66 34
Missoula Missoula Public LIbrary Pass 58 42
Columbus Columbus Public Library Pass 65 35
Milford Wadleigh Memorial Library Fail 45 55
Statewide New Mexico Libraries Pass 65 35
Hampton Bays Hampton Bays Public Library Fail 41 59
Liberty Liberty Public Library Pass 85 15
Durham Durham County Library Pass 81 19
Oakwood Wright Memorial Public Library Fail 50 50
Allentown Parkland Community Library Fail 44 56
Narragansett Maury Loontjens Memorial Library Pass 68 32
St. George Dorchester County Library Pass 61 39
Falls Church Mary Riley Styles Public Library Pass 63 37
Henrico Henrico County Public Library Pass 75 25
Brewster North Central Regional Library Pass 66 34
Eastsound Orcas Island Library Pass 64 36
Point Roberts Point Roberts Library Fail 54 46
Evansville Eager Free Public Library Pass 54 46
Evansville Eager Free Public Library Pass 56 44
Three Lakes Edward U. Demmer Memorial Library Pass 53 47
Watertown Watertown Public Library Pass 62 38

Pressure from above

Over the past few years and in many states there has been a movement to reduce or eliminate small units of government in the name of saving taxpayers money. Already, governors as different as Democrat Andrew Cuomo in New York and Republican Bruce Rauner in Illinois advocate such moves to eradicate waste and create tax savings. Independent library districts are in that “small unit of government” category; they may well be on the “consolidate or cut” list along with schools, parks, water and waste, cemeteries, power and light, and other agencies.

The next four years promise to be a difficult period for federal support to local and state government as well. The scope of the federal government is going to be changing under President Trump, Speaker Ryan, and Majority Leader McConnell not only from President Obama’s approach but from that of presidents Bush and Clinton. As of this writing, President Trump’s nominees to head the departments of Education, Treasury, and Commerce; to be the Attorney General; and to run the Federal Communications Commission are all committed to shrinking federal spending and curtailing the role that Washington has in rule making, enforcement, and direct support. Ryan’s budgets have, over the last several fiscal years, called for the complete elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services and zero funding for the Library Services and Technology Act. Likewise, Ryan and McConnell have placed many members in key committee chair roles who likewise believe in doing away with federal support for programs and federal oversight of protections.

This shrinking of federal programs and the federal budget will place more burdens on state and local government to meet their budgets solely through local resources and to fill in the gaps once covered by federal programs in education, health care, mental health, and public safety. In many arenas, libraries will have to shoulder more of the service responsibility of local authorities. As federal education funding changes, public libraries will be called on to close additional educational gaps.


Bakersfield Kern County Library Fail 52 48
Loomis Loomis Library & Community Learning Center Pass 64 36
Brighton Brighton Memorial Library District Pass 61 39
Cicero Cicero Public Library Pass 69 31
Mt. Vernon C.E. Brehm Memorial Public Library District Fail 45 55
Natoma Natoma Community Library Pass 92 8
Chassell Portage Lake District Library Fail 46 54
Chassell Portage Lake District Library Pass 55 45
Harbor Springs Petoskey Library System Pass 61 39
Leland Leland Township Public Library Pass 74 26
Belvidere Belvidere Free Public Library Pass 52 48
Longport Atlantic County Library System Pass 62 38
Vestal Vestal Public Library Pass 85 15
Roseburg Douglas County Library System Fail 45 55
Kahlutos Mid-Columbia Libraries Pass 84 16
Minocqua Minocqua Public Library Fail
SOURCE: LJ PUBLIC LIBRARY REFERENDA 2016; Library Governance includes referenda to create independent library districts, join or expand existing library districts, or become a part of a school district.

The calm before the storm?

If you are doing community planning surveys, please start attaching dollars to those services and begin talking about the sources of that revenue. Your library needs to take the lead in local discussions about tax rates and community priorities in order to ensure you have resources to weather the coming change.

We see a perfect storm on the horizon and are concerned that libraries may be caught unprepared. Already, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives, has spun-off a new unit dedicated to creating smaller towns, cities, and counties called the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. It will be originating model ordinances intended to cut local spending and shrink government. Whether that agenda is expressed against libraries through local ordinances or bills, court cases like the one in Kentucky, or petition drives as in Arkansas or Missouri, library leaders must communicate with voters now about how boards and staff are already spending their tax money wisely and efficiently.


TOTAL REFERENDA 121 86% 47 68%
January-April 25 76% 7 57%
May-August 41 93% 10 70%
September-December 55 86% 30 70%
Under $10 million 43 91% 21 71%
Over $10 million 2 100% 21 57%
Under 10,000 39 90% 11 73%
10,000 to 24,999 36 75% 13 54%
25,000 to 49,999 17 100% 10 90%
50,000 to 99,999 17 77% 7 29%
100,000 or more 12 100% 6 100%
Northeast 23 91% 5 40%
Midwest 72 86% 21 67%
South 7 71% 9 100%
West 19 84% 12 58%
*Number of measures do not add up to the total because LJ did not receive data.

What is really different?

If your library has to go to the voters anytime in the next several years, we believe that you should launch your campaign now with a poll or survey about the tax rate. It is absolutely vital for you to know and understand where your local voters are emotionally on the subject of taxes. That can only be done through a poll or survey that asks people specifically about their tolerance for taxes. Since use and support are not dependent on each other, you cannot deduce users’ support from other metrics such as cardholder rate, circulation stats, or even current donor rolls. You have to ask real and substantial questions to both users and nonusers about their interest in your work, the value the library provides to the community, and their perception of your impact on people who use the library.

Most especially, you need to know two to five years out from your Election Day how they feel about the taxes they are paying. If it’s good, it is essential that you hold on to that perception. If it’s bad, you know that you have to change that perception to one that looks more favorably on libraries. Either way, there is work ahead, and it is imperative that it be done early and continuously, with the climate of dramatic shifts in governance and voter attitudes at the forefront of our ­minds.

John Chrastka is Executive Director of EveryLibrary and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker. Brian Hart is a Librarian and EveryLibrary board member. He is currently pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration from Georgia College and State University

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