More Wins than Losses for Libraries

On a long Election Night filled with tension and political upset, 79 libraries across the country had referenda on the ballot. The news for libraries was more good than bad. At press time, 54 had recorded wins and 12 losses, with the remainder either not applicable—representing votes to leave a district, for instance—or still too close to call.
vote-libraries-4-cat-by-juana-medina-low-res-490x300On a long election night filled with tension and political upset, 79 libraries across the country had referenda on the ballot. The news for libraries was more good than bad. At press time, 54 wins and 12 losses were recorded, with the remainder either not applicable—representing votes to leave a district, for instance—or still too close to call. John Chrastka, founder and executive director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit organization that advocates for local library ballot initiatives (and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker), worked with 16 of those communities. Of those, EveryLibrary won nine and lost five, with two still too close to call. The wins total nearly $90 million, including funds for new construction, upgrades and renovations, and operating funds.


The smallest operating levy in EveryLibrary’s win column was one of the most critical, according to Chrastka. Jeannette Public Library, PA, passed a one mill increase for a total of 1.24 mills and a total of $77,987, to replace municipal funding cut in fall 2015. The measure, which narrowly passed by 52 percent, will allow the library to keep its doors open. Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL), Kansas City, MO, won an 8 percent increase to its operating levy across three counties. The levy, known as Proposition L, is the first library increase to taxpayers since 1983. MCPL decided to put the measure on the ballot in January, hoping that a large turnout would demonstrate public opinion as to whether the library’s aspirations were what the community wanted. "We had no idea what the November election was ultimately going to look like,” said MCPL director Steven Potter. “Hindsight being what it is, I don't know if we would have made this decision if we were to realize how volatile the election was going to be, and how crowded the ballot was going to be." But the vote passed by 62 percent, and Potter noted, “I think we have a pretty clear mandate as to what it is we need to be doing.” The resulting levy will result in an average one percent property tax increase over the current 32-cent tax per hundred dollars assessed valuation for the average household, which accounts for approximately 95 percent of the library’s operating funds. The new increase will enable MCPL to build six new or replacement library buildings and renovate another 28; add operating hours; expand services, collections, and research tools; and improve in-branch Internet bandwidth. “In the face of active opposition by one of the counties to even place the measure on the ballot…it's a ringing endorsement for the library by the communities," said Chrastka.


Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, coordinator of library sustainability for the Mid-Hudson Library System (MHLS), also had her doubts about the practicality of library measures going up on this fall’s crowded ballot. "We weren't encouraging libraries to go out this year,” she said. “We just felt it was going to be a really unpredictable year." But out of six libraries in New York's fiscally conservative Hudson County with referenda on the docket, Smith Aldrich said, four won—although the Phoenicia Library lost by only 21 votes, and Aldrich is hoping that will be overturned by absentee ballots. The Patterson Library's win in particular, with just under 63 percent of the vote, sent "a really strong message from that community that they're really proud of their library." Voters also showed overwhelming approval for Ohio libraries, approving all 15 public library issues on local ballots around the state. The successful ballot issues included nine renewal levies, three new levies—all of which passed by significant margins, with an average voter approval rate of 67 percent—and three renewals plus additions. “Voters continue to express their support for public libraries at the polls,” said Ohio Library Council executive director Douglas Evans in a statement on November 9. “Yesterday’s election results prove that the majority of voters feel that their libraries provide essential programs and services and are good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”


The Missoula Public Library (MPL) district, MT, will have a new facility after a $30 million bond was approved, with 58 percent voting yes. The original building, built in 1974, is the busiest of the countywide system’s eight branches, averaging more than 2,000 unique daily visitors and more than 600,000 users per year. Yet it suffers a lack of space for children’s programming, computers, and the library’s growing collections, and the boilers and bathroom plumbing leak. The new and expanded building will triple its computer capacity, expand digital collections, and offer access to video production, 3-D printing, and more. More than 500 community leaders and stakeholders, including 22 small business owners, 30 educators, and ten local nonprofits, signed a letter of support for the bond addressed to the Board of Missoula County Commissioners. At a cost of approximately $2.34 per month on a $200,000 home, the letter stated, the time was ripe to fund a new, modern building; the final 28,146–20,445 vote reflects the community’s enthusiasm. “We are extremely grateful to Missoula County voters for their support and confidence in the All Under One Roof concept to bring expanded services and integrated learning to the Library,” said MPL Foundation chair Frank Scariano. “We look forward to the next steps including the design process, continued fundraising for the capital campaign, and ultimately an exciting new efficient building.” Dorchester County, SC, voted yes on a $43 million “quality of life” referendum to help grow the county’s parks and libraries. Nearly 61 percent of county residents approved the measure, which will provide at least $30 million to build two new library facilities in Summerville and North Charleston and upgrade the existing Jennie J. McMahan Library in St. George. The Dorchester County Library system, serving a population of nearly 150,000, currently consists of two facilities, including the George H. Seago, Jr. Library in Summerville, a small building that hasn’t been updated since the 1970s and will be replaced through the new funding. Approved shortly after the flood damage incurred by Hurricane Matthew, the bond represents a strong desire to invest in the community’s infrastructure and its libraries, noted Chrastka.


Despite the strong record of wins, Chrastka told LJ, local opposition to library ballots in the form of direct mail and robocall campaigns represented a continuing trend in a number of communities. Bond measures in Brookfield and Crystal Lake, IL, for instance, which would have funded new library buildings, fell to local Vote No efforts. "This local or nationally organized opposition was not a fluke back in the spring primaries with Plainfield [Library District, IL],” said Chrastka. “Those aren't one-offs. There is a concerning trend for that kind of opposition." The Meridian Library District (MLD), ID, was similarly targeted, Chrastka noted. The district failed to pass two bonds that would have funded construction of new branch libraries and community pools. The $12 million library bond was approved by 59 percent of voters, but required a supermajority of 66.7 percent to pass. The funds were earmarked to build two new branches—one in South Meridian, with an estimated cost of $7 million, and a second in North Meridian, estimated at $5 million. The South Meridian branch, combined with one of the proposed pools, was to create a multi-use complex, which included a YMCA, attached to the existing Hillside Elementary School. The cost to taxpayers would have been approximately $11.05 annually per $100,000 in assessed property value, or $0.92 per month. Even without opposition, however, noted MLD director Gretchen Caserotti, the ballot faced issues of voter perception in addition to a fiscally conservative political climate. "One thing we struggled with in this campaign,” Caserotti told LJ, was that “[MLD has] a law that prohibits us from saving to build, but people don't know that. So the public perception is that we should save to build, instead of bonding, which is debt. And we can't, because that's illegal." Still, she added, "I'm really proud of the fact that we got 59 percent in a really tough election."


Perhaps the most significant loss on the November ballot was the Douglas County Library, OR, proposed special library district. Without Measure 10-145, the county’s 11 libraries will probably close later in the year. Fifty-six percent of voters rejected the proposed district, taxes for which would have amounted to 44 cents per $1,000 of assessed property tax. The library is dependent on a percentage of timber revenue from Western Oregon O&C-BLM [Oregon & California Bureau of Land Management] forestlands, which has been falling in recent years; new O&C management plans have further reduced county funding. An independent library district would have provided a dedicated source of revenue and an economy of scale. The alternative, allowing individual cities to run their own libraries, would likely result in underfunded libraries operated by volunteers. The measure’s failure is "a heartbreaker,” said Chrastka. “Whatever they're going to do next year is completely uncertain, but between the support that was provided by the Ford Family Foundation and the OR Community Foundation as bridge grants to keep the library open, all we know for certain is that [on] December 31, 2016 they run out of money."


As for what the larger implications of the general elections will mean for library measures going forward, Chrastka feels that libraries will become more reliant on local funding. "The promises that have been made during the campaign to shrink the federal government will mean that states and localities have more of a burden on property and sales tax to fund libraries." More than that, he told LJ, it will become ever more important for libraries to stand up for their roles in the community. "I see the tone and tenor of the election—one that targeted groups not as our neighbors but as The Other—as being a disturbing shift in how we organize ourselves as communities,” said Chrastka. “And that the library inherently serves everyone as if they are our neighbors means that we have to hold the line on what our truth is, as a public institution, in the face of that." The upcoming political climate may also encourage more fiscal conservatives to run for office, noted Smith Aldrich, which means libraries will have to step up their games when making their case for funding. "We just had a big meeting this morning with a lot of our library directors,” she said, “and something I said to that people might not realize it, but they need libraries more than ever in the new era we're about to enter. And our work now is to really demonstrate that, to play up our roles as conveners of conversation, to have civil dialog in our communities. And that type of behavior for libraries will pay off when it's time to vote."
Was your library on the ballot and not mentioned here? Let us know your results in the comments, and look for more complete coverage of the year’s library referenda in the February 1, 2017 issue of Library Journal.
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Laura Pappani

Nevada County, California, had one of those "too close to call" ballot initiatives. After two weeks of waiting as vote-by-mail and provisional ballots were counted, I'm delighted to say that the library sales tax initiative passed with 70.55% of the vote (it needed 66.7%). I can't thank John Chrastka and EveryLibrary enough for their support and sage advice throughout the whole process.

Posted : Nov 29, 2016 10:08

Joe Ross

Ballot measure 10-145 to form a library district in Douglas County, Oregon was defeated with 55% voting No. Do you have any ideas to help keep our eleven libraries open? We have town hall meetings scheduled on Nov 23 and 29. I'd encourage you to also email your written comments and ideas to Here's a link to our current library system budget (with line item allocations) through 30 June 2017.

Posted : Nov 20, 2016 12:25

Roy Tennant

The Sonoma County Library also ran a great campaign for a 1/8 cent sales tax and it passed: Also, thanks for all the work that does to make library measures successful.

Posted : Nov 10, 2016 05:31



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