Referenda Report: Renewals Up, New Funding Lagged in 2019

Referenda: 2019 library ballot measures see success in renewals, less for new funding.

Referenda: 2019 library ballot measures see success in renewals, less for new funding

Overall, 2019 was a good year for libraries on ballots across the country. Of the 154 library questions identified by Library Journal and EveryLibrary through tracking and post-election research, 124 were for funding, 24 were for buildings, and the remaining six focused on governance or legal structure. Of the 124 operating levies and budgets, fully 93 percent passed. Of the 24 building or general obligation bonds for facilities, seven out of ten passed. Overall, libraries won at a higher rate than in 2018, when only 88 percent of funding and 61 percent of building questions passed, respectively.

As is usual in off-cycle years, operating levies and annual budgets were highly concentrated in a few states. New York, Ohio, and Colorado together accounted for 88 of the 124 renewals and annual budget measures this year. In several states, libraries were forced to go to the ballot to make up for shortfalls and cuts from county and city partners. There is an ongoing theme of local politicians telling libraries to find alternative sources of revenue to taxes in order to run these public institutions. Several libraries in Colorado were on the ballot, in full or part, to ask voters to remove tax caps that reduce the library’s revenue by a formula or percentage.



With 124 library-related operating tax measures on the ballot, it is good to report that nine out of ten passed in 2019. As in many recent years, renewals and annual budgets were almost all approved. The stability of the renewal cycle is key to the overall financial health and well-being of the entire library sector. However, renewals are not indexed for inflation or personnel costs, particularly in states where the minimum wage is increasing or where pension obligations are outpacing revenues. It is perhaps because renewals are easier to pass that few library leaders want to rock the boat by asking for new resources. As reported by OCLC in its 2018 “From Awareness to Funding” study, the baseline of voter support nationally is now only 58 percent likely to definitely vote yes for libraries. We can see that softness in voter support in the lower passage rate for new funding questions.

Notable campaigns included passage of an operating levy for the Pine River Library District in Bayfield, CO, following a very close nine-vote loss at the 2018 midterms. The leadership team reworked the measure and reengaged a new approach to the community to take it to 59 percent yes this time around. The Wilkinson Public Library in Telluride, CO, was on the ballot for the first time in 22 years—and passed a new funding levy. Like many libraries in recent years, the Ogdensburg Public Library in New York was forced to go to the ballot because of a funding shortfall from its longtime municipal partner. The library failed to pass a funding referendum on the School District ballot. In Ohio, the Louisville Public Library lost its renewal request by 107 votes. This portion of the levy accounts for one third of operations and costs a property owner about $24 for every $100,000 in home valuation. The library will re-run the ballot measure in March 2020. The Huntington Woods Library and Cultural Center in Michigan received one of the highest passage rates, with 91 percent of the community voting yes for the levy; Seymour Library in Auburn, NY saw a 92 percent passage rate.

Back in 2017, New Jersey libraries were given new authority to go to the ballot and request funding above the .33 mil rate that was otherwise the ceiling for voter approval. Mahwah Public Library became the first library to pass a measure under this new law, 72 percent outvoting the 28 percent. While cities can choose to provide supplemental funding–and many communities, including Mahwah, do–this voter-approved funding is stable and cannot be reduced by local politicians. The library leadership team ran an excellent information only campaign, the first in the library’s 117-year history.

Recreational marijuana sales in Craig, CO, are now taxed at a four percent variable sales tax rate that is dedicated to the library and museum for the next five years. This city-level tax backfills shortfalls from Colorado’s Moffat County general fund. County commissioners have made significant cuts to both institutions’ budgets as county tax collection has fallen. It may be the first time that a voter-approved dedicated tax on cannabis is used for libraries. It is also the first time in six years of trying to pass recreational sales in town that a ballot measure has succeeded.



In 2019, six communities considered, struggled, and ultimately voted on the big question of what kind of a community they want to be and whether they see libraries as essential and necessary or a luxury and nice-to-have service. While the library sector thinks there is a settled and obvious answer, voters in Woodland, WA, decided against creating a new limited district to fund library services for everyone. Individuals and families who want a library card can still purchase a non-resident card to use the Fort Vancouver Library, but voters decided against taxes as the way to make library services universally available.

In another part of the state, however, voters eagerly joined their neighboring library district. Voters in College Place, WA, agreed to annex themselves to the Walla Walla County Rural Library District in August. Between 2000 and 2010, the city had a dedicated reimbursement fund for residents who wanted to buy library cards. In 2018, the city council reinstated that program and demand was so high that it decided to ask the voters to formally join the district the following year. The city had been the largest in Washington without library services.

Three years ago, the county commissioners in LaPlata County, CO, cut off funding for public library services that were co-located in two rural schools. The school district, along with the Durango Public Library, had been able to keep the public library services open with short-term grant funding, but that was set to run out at the end of the 2019-20 school year. A dedicated group of community stakeholders did the hard work of drawing a proposed district and fielding a petition to place a new Southwest LaPlata Library District on the November ballot. After a well-built, volunteer-led Get Out the Vote campaign, the new district passed with 52 percent of the vote. The new library board will contract with the Durango Public Library for services.

There is one measure in the “pass” column that is not cause for celebration. In Lafayette Parish, LA, voters approved a $10 million rededication levy put forward by the outgoing consolidated city and parish government. The vote will redistribute funds from the library’s reserves to drainage, roads, and parks projects. While the library is part of municipal government, the levy that supports the library is out of the immediate control of parish officials. However, they were able to place the rededication question on the ballot and succeeded in pitting the issue of flood control against the needs of the library.



Across the county, 24 library building projects appeared on local ballots, and 17 passed. Most were outlined in standalone questions such as the Huntley, IL, expansion project or the new libraries in Meridian, ID. In other places, library projects were components of much larger municipal measures. The Albuquerque Public Library was an anchor project of a citywide GOBond for construction. In Georgia, the Athens-Clark County community passed a SPLOST, or Special Purpose Tax, three to one. It included funding for a new Eastside library and three dozen other projects for fire protection, water, green space, affordable housing, and mental health services. Two building measures that failed to pass in New Hampshire required super-majorities to be enacted. While they both received more than 50 percent of the vote, they failed to reach the required threshold to proceed.

The Flint, MI, library was on the November ballot with two measures. One was the renewal of a 2 mil operating levy that constitutes about half of its day-to-day operational funding. The other was a $12.6 million bond that is part of a $27.6 million renovation and upgrade project. The “Ready to Write a New Chapter” campaign included both capital fundraising efforts and the ballot measure. Both passed, and library will move to temporary quarters on Leap Day 2020 to kick off the renovation project.

Voters in Dorchester County, SC, approved a $30 million bond for new libraries in Summerville and Ridgeville. The Nicholson Memorial Library System in Garland, TX, will put a $21 million bond to work over the next 40 years to improve, equip, and expand library facilities. But in River Grove, IL, the voters heard strong opposition from the city and local elected officials and failed to approve a bond to relocate the library to a different part of town.

If we look deeper into several of the operating levies and referenda, there are facilities projects embedded in that count as well. For example, the Palatine, IL, campaign, which helped win LJ’s 2019 Marketer of the Year award, ensures that the library can make necessary and ongoing repairs, renovations, and upgrades to aging facilities without cutting services and collections in the process. Likewise, it was clear to voters who supported the Union Library of Hatboro, PA, that the .55 mil tax would be for upkeep as well as programs. This approach can appeal to voters who are interested in stability and careful management of the public trust.



At EveryLibrary, we have fielded dozens of questions from library leaders about whether they should be on the ballot in 2020 or not. There is a lot of angst in the library community about voter sentiment, and real uncertainty about how the top of the ticket could impact libraries down the ballot. There are a lot of opinions and conventional wisdom, but without local voter data, it’s all conjecture.

We are well past the time that libraries or advocates can simply put a measure on the ballot and expect it to pass. Trends show a steady decline in voter support nationally over the last decade. The electorate, and politics in general, have not become less contentious; voters are even more partisan in their outlook than any time in the recent past. This decline in core support means that whether you are considering a general election, off-cycle local election, or special election, you need to know what your own voters think, feel, and believe about taxes first—before you learn how they feel about the library.

If the 2017 off-cycle elections were any indication, libraries on Democratic presidential primary ballots may see a higher rate of progressive voters supporting them, possibly as an anti-Trump vote. However, if the 2018 midterms are our guide, library leaders need to be wary of large turnout general elections and under-informed voters. You need a solid plan and proper funding in place for both information-only communications and get out the vote campaigns—or the uninformed voter will behave in an uninformed way. So start polling and developing surveys that are designed to look beyond the user experience and which get at the level and type of support you have among voters. This must include ongoing marketing and outreach designed to build up or solidify that support, regardless whether those voters ever use their library.




Southwest La Plata County Library District PASS 52 48


Boise Public Library PASS 69 31


Lafayette Public Library PASS 59 41

College Place

Walla Walla County Rural Library District PASS 66 34

Union Gap

Yakima Valley Regional Library PASS 67 33


Lewis River Library District FAIL 26 74

SOURCE: LJ PUBLIC LIBRARY REFERENDA 2019; Library Governance includes
referenda to create independent library districts, join or expand existing library districts,
or become a part of a school district. Library Governance also includes referenda
to dissolve or withdraw from existing library districts.



Leeds Jane Culbreth Public Library  FAIL 39 61
Loveland Public Library FAIL 48 52
Athens-Clarke County Library PASS 78 22
Meridian Library District PASS 67 33
Huntley Area Public Library District PASS 67 33




COLORADO         OHIO        
Bayfield Pine River Library District PASS 59 41 Ada Ada Public Library PASS 63 37
Brighton Anythink Libraries FAIL 48 52 Ashtabula Ashtabula County District Library PASS 50 50
Craig Moffatt County Library - 2A PASS 55 45 Bellevue Bellevue Public Library PASS 71 29
Craig Moffatt County Library - 2B PASS 65 35 Bryan Williams County Public Library PASS 77 23
Eagle Eagle Valley Library District PASS 65 35 Canton Stark County Library District PASS 51 49
Gunnison Gunnison County Library District PASS 56 44 Eastlake Willoughby-Eastlake Public Library PASS 65 35
Hotchkiss Delta County Library District FAIL 44 56 Eaton Preble County District Library PASS 57 43
Pikes Peak Library District PASS 50 50 Elmore Harris Elmore Library PASS 73 27
Pueblo Pueblo City-County Library District PASS 59 41 Euclid Euclid Public Library PASS 78 22
Rifle Garfield County Public Library District PASS 53 47 Fayette Normal Memorial Library PASS 76 24
Telluride Wilkinson Public Library PASS 73 27 Forest Forest-Jackson Public Library PASS 75 25
CONNECTICUT         Gnadenhutten Gnadenhutten Public Library PASS 71 29
Cromwell Cromwell Belden Public Library PASS 75 25 Granville Granville Public Library PASS 80 20
Madison E.C. Scranton Memorial Library PASS 67 33 Holgate Holgate Community Library PASS 82 18
Stafford Stafford Public Library PASS 58 42 London London Public Library PASS 76 24
ILLINOIS         Lorain Lorain Public Library System PASS 68 32
Palatine Palatine Public Library District PASS 65 35 Louisville Louisville Public Library FAIL 49 51
Rockton Talcott Free Library District PASS 69 31 McComb McComb Public Library PASS 76 24
Romeoville White Oak Library District FAIL 49 51 McConnelsville Kate Love Simpson Morgan County Library PASS 71 29
IOWA         Mechanicsburg Mechanicsburg Public Library PASS 65 35
Des Moines Des Moines Public Library PASS 68 32 Nelsonville Athens County Public Libraries PASS 66 34
Oxford Oxford Public Library PASS 68 32 North
Lorain Public Library System PASS 75 25
Tiffin Springmier Community Library PASS 56 44 Oberlin Oberlin Public Library PASS 90 10
MICHIGAN         Orrville Orrville Public Library PASS 73 27
Alpena Alpena County
George N. Fletcher Public Library
PASS 71 29 Pemberville Pemberville Public Library PASS 77 23
Chelsea Chelsea District Library PASS 66 34 Portsmouth Portsmouth Public Library PASS 68 32
Dorr Dorr Township Library FAIL 46 54 Rock Creek Rock Creek Public Library PASS 75 25
Flint Flint Public Library PASS 77 23 Rockford Rockford Carnegie Library PASS 87 13
Inkster Leanna Hicks Public Library PASS 69 31 Shelby Marvin Memorial Library PASS 76 24
Marshall Marshall District Library PASS 89 11 Steubenville Public Library of Steubenville
and Jefferson County
PASS 71 29
Pleasant Ridge Huntington Woods Library and Cultural Center PASS 91 9 Sunbury Community Library PASS 70 30
Portage Portage Area District Library PASS 59 41 Warren Warren-Trumbull County Public Library PASS 59 41
NEW JERSEY         West Jefferson Hurt/Battelle Memorial Library  PASS 72 28
Mahwah Mahwah Public Library PASS 72 28 West Milton Milton-Union Public Library PASS 75 25
NEW YORK         Youngstown Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County PASS 66 34
Apalachin Apalachin Public Library PASS 53 47 OREGON        
Auburn Seymour  Library PASS 92 8 Corvallis Corvallis Public Library PASS 73 27
Aurora Aurora Free Library PASS 74 26 Newport Lincoln County Library District PASS 73 27
Baldwin Baldwin Public Library PASS 81 19 PENNSYLVANIA        
Ballston Spa Ballston Spa Public Library PASS 85 15 Hatboro Union Library of Hatboro PASS 72 28
Barker Barker Public Library PASS 74 26 Macungie Lower Macungie Library  PASS 54 46
Beekman Beekman Library PASS 64 36 WASHINGTON        
Catskill Catskill Public Library PASS 73 27 Castle Rock Castle Rock Public Library FAIL 26 74
Chester Chester Public Library PASS 59 41 Lopez Island Lopez Island Library District PASS 69 31
Clifton Park Clifton Park–Halfmoon Public Library PASS 82 18


Pend Oreille County Library District PASS 64 36
Cortland Cortland Free Library PASS 70 30 Seattle Seattle Public Library PASS 73 27
Elbridge Elbridge Free Library PASS 75 25


Spokane County Rural Library District PASS 55 45
Eldred Sunshine Hall Free Library PASS 84 16 WEST VIRGINIA        
Fair Haven Fair Haven Public Library  PASS 72 28 Elkins Elkins-Randolph County Public Library FAIL 34 66
Freeport Freeport Memorial Library PASS 81 19 Logan Western  Counties Regional Library System PASS 90 10
Gardiner Gardiner Library PASS 70 30 Martinsburg Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library PASS 65 35
Garrison Desmond-Fish Public Library PASS 62 38 Nitro Nitro Public Library PASS 89 11
Glens Falls Crandall Public Library PASS 66 34 Princeton Mercer County Public Libraries PASS 66 34
Great Neck Great Neck Public Library PASS 79 21 Union Monroe County Public Library PASS 63 37
Jordan Jordan Bramley Library PASS 77 23 Welch McDowell Public Library PASS 89 11
Lake Carmel Kent Public Library PASS 69 31 Wheeling Ohio County Public Library PASS 67 33
Mahopac Mahopac Public Library PASS 83 17



Middle Island Longwood Public Library PASS 80 20
Middleport Royalton Hartland Community Library PASS 80 20
Moravia Powers Library PASS 77 23
Newburgh Newburgh Free Library PASS 73 27
Norwood Norwood Public Library PASS 68 32
Ogdensburg Ogdensburg Public Library FAIL 40 60
Ovid Edith B. Ford Memorial Library PASS 67 33
Owego Coburn Free Library PASS 57 43
Peekskill Field Library PASS 65 35
Phoenicia Phoenicia Library PASS 61 39
Port Byron Port Byron Library PASS 62 38
Putnam Valley Putnam Valley Free Library PASS 53 47
Red Hook Red Hook Public Library PASS 74 26
Rensselaerville Rensselaerville Library PASS 69 31
Seneca Falls Seneca Falls Library PASS 76 24
Tivoli Tivoli Free Library PASS 75 25
Union Springs Springport Free Library PASS 87 13
Victor Victor Farmington Library PASS 83 17
Warwick Albert Wisner Public Library PASS 88 12
Weedsport Weedsport Public Library PASS 78 22
Wyandanch Wyandanch Public Library FAIL 45 55
Author Image
John Chrastka

John Chrastka, a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker, is Founder and Executive Director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit organization that advocates for local library ballot initiatives.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing