Breaking Records at the Polls | Budgets & Funding

Libraries saw unprecedented success in the voting booth in 2017. Can we keep the momentum going?

Libraries saw unprecedented success in the voting booth in 2017. Can we keep the momentum going?

EveryLibrary and LJ tracked a total of 133 library ballot measures across 24 states in 2017. A majority (85) were for operating funds to maintain or expand library programs, staffing, services, and collections. We are very happy to report that 83 of those 85 measures passed. This 98% pass rate is the highest level of success that we have tracked in the last ten years. Ballot questions related to updating, renovating, or building new library facilities also enjoyed a high rate of success, with 28 of 39 measures passing (72%). All nine of the “governance”-related questions, such as establishing a district or annexing new areas for service into a district, also passed. Overall, 90% of all library ballots passed in 2017, in both red states and blue ones, in small towns and in big cities, as components of larger municipal questions or as dedicated library measures. (Of these, EveryLibrary worked on 17 referenda, resulting in 14 wins, one partial win, and two losses. These include eight new or significantly expanded library buildings in six towns, seven increases in operating funds, and two new library districts.)

As in 2016, Ohio and New York accounted for nearly half of all measures we tracked. This year, 100% of the measures in each of those states passed. In particular, Ohio voters approved several new dedicated local library levies to supplement the state aid formula with local levy dollars. In New York, several libraries were able to pass their budgets after repeated tries. Big wins nationwide include Washington’s Kitsap Regional Library passing an .08¢ increase ($3,450,000) to its operating budget with a 62% yes vote, the Lyon Township Public Library, MI, passing a 60% increase to operating funding with a 56% yes vote, and the Bridgeport Public Library, CT, reinstating one mill of funding with a 65% yes vote. A county library for Moniteau County, MO, was created, as was a municipally funded library for the town of Rochelle Park, NJ. After many years of operating solely on donations, the team in Josephine County, OR, established a special taxing district for significant parts of the region.

Buildings on the ballot

Highlights from the building votes include Houston, TX, where voters passed a $123 million bond for library construction just eight weeks after Hurricane Harvey dropped devastating rain on the region over the course of five days. The Dallas Public Library will build two new libraries and undertake needed renovations across the system with a $11.5 million citywide bond approved at 76%. Several multipurpose bonds were on ballots across the country, including in Shelburne, VT, where voters approved $6.5 million for a new library and to renovate their historic Town Hall. In Ankeny, IA, the town will build a fire station and a library. The narrowest win for any library we tracked was a 12-vote margin (following a recount) in the town of Carbondale, KS, where the voters affirmed on December 12 a city council action to sell $1.65 million in revenue bonds to finance a new facility.

The only statewide ballot for libraries this year was in New Jersey, where the New Jersey Library Association succeeded in working with the General Assembly in Trenton to place a $125 million construction bond for libraries out for voter approval, then campaigned hard for its passage. With broad-based support among elected officials and other organizations across the state, and through the diligent work of the NJ Libraries Build Communities campaign, the measure passed with 60% of the vote.

2017 Summary

Operating Referenda Building Referenda
# of Measures % Passing % For % Against # of Measures % Passing % For % Against
TOTAL REFERENDA 85 96 70 30 39 72 60 40
January–April 14 86 63 37 9 56 55 45
May–August 19 100 77 23 4 100 70 30
September–December 52 98 70 30 26 73 59 41
Under $10 million n/a n/a n/a n/a 21 67 59 41
Over $10 million n/a n/a n/a n/a 16 75 60 40
Northeast 35 100 76 24 12 67 57 43
Midwest 32 97 68 32 15 80 58 42
South 11 91 63 37 4 100 72 28
West 7 100 64 36 8 50 59 41
Number of measures do not add up to the total as info was unavailable on two of the 39 building referenda.

Riding a progressive wave?

How did 2017 break the record for winning measures, with 90% passing? We have a professional hunch or two. For instance, 2017 could be a year when traditionally progressive issues were able to succeed because “macropolitical” forces pulled out certain values-driven voters. This may have helped account for some large margins of victory and even some lucky breaks on the campaign trail. This does not discount the hard work and smart campaigning done by library teams nationwide. Classic voter identification work coupled with engaged and active Get Out the Vote contact by a Yes Committee still carries the day. Likewise, a library’s own Informational Communications Campaign is central to voter education and activation in every community that succeeds. But this first post-Trump state and municipal off-cycle election may merit an asterisk in the record books in the same way that library teams were forgiven in 2009 and 2010 for a high number of losses. Then, when they were dealt a terrible “macroeconomic” hand with unemployment, the housing crisis, and the collapse of Wall Street, not even the best campaign strategy, tactic, or practice could overcome voter resistance in some places.

Ten-Year Trends

2017 85 98 2 39 72 28
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
AVG 113 85 15 32 61 39
The study was not conducted in 2012.

Gearing up for 2018

If the progressive voters who were moved on the local level in 2017 by national politics continue to show up in 2018, it will potentially be a much easier set of Election Days. But don’t forget that this is a congressional election year, and in many places contested races and incumbents with challengers will bring out a different base of voters who don’t automatically share a love for libraries or a desire to tax themselves for them. So we’ll need to anticipate 2018 by speaking about our values as a library community.

As our colleagues in the political sciences note, voters identify with candidates based first and foremost on having a “shared values system.” Drew Westen, in his book The Political Brain (PublicAffairs), identified the key questions that voters unconsciously ask about a candidate in an election: “Does the candidate share the values that matter most to me, and do they care about people like me?” The identity of the candidate in relation to the voter, the consistency the candidate has with policy issues, and the candidate’s personal character matter significantly less than the values system the candidate espouses and with which the voter identifies.

The central campaign thesis at EveryLibrary, one that is rooted in the OCLC “From Awareness to Funding” study of voter perceptions about libraries, is that the “librarians are the candidate” when it comes to funding discussions, and the library’s record is the incumbency that is being considered. The perception and attitudes about the library as an institution are co-equal to that of the perception and attitudes people have about librarians. For libraries on the ballot in 2018, it is absolutely critical that staffers talk clearly about their own professional values as librarians and that board members speak clearly about their personal values as public servants who believe in the power and impact of properly funded libraries.

Operating Referenda

Modesto Stanislaus County Library PASS 82 18
Montrose Montrose Regional Library District PASS 59 41
Bridgeport Bridgeport Public Library PASS 65 35
Coventry Booth & Dimock Library PASS 58 42
Romeoville White Oak Library District FAIL 39 61
Amite City Tangipahoa Parish Library FAIL 42 58
East Feliciana Audubon Regional Library PASS 65 35
Ferriday Concordia Parish Library PASS 78 22
Jefferson Jefferson Parish Library PASS 72 28
Napoleonville Assumption Parish Library PASS 66 34
Natchitoches Natchitoches Parish Library PASS 67 33
New Roads Pointe Coupee Parish Library PASS 58 42
Rayville Richland Parish Library PASS* 66 34
St. Helena Audubon Regional Library PASS 59 41
Thibodaux Lafourche Parish Public Library PASS 56 44
Grand Rapids Grand Rapids Public Library PASS 71 29
Lyon Lyon Township Public Library PASS 56 44
California Moniteau County Library District PASS 69 31
High Ridge Jefferson County Library PASS 54 46
Ironton Ozark Regional Library PASS 66 34
Maryville Maryville Public Library PASS 72 28
Richmond Ray County Public Library PASS 59 41
Sainte Genevieve Sainte Genevieve County Library PASS 68 32
Tipton Price James Memorial Library PASS 82 18
Choteau Choteau/Teton Public Library PASS 64 36
Athens D.R. Evarts Library PASS 92 8
Binghamton Fenton Free Library PASS 88 12
Calverton Baiting Hollow Free Library PASS 60 40
Catskill Catskill Public Library PASS 76 24
Claverack Claverack Library PASS 61 39
Corning Southeast Steuben County Library PASS 63 37
Coxsackie Heermance Memorial Library PASS 94 6
Dansville Dansville Public Library PASS 88 13
Franklin Franklin Free Library PASS 74 26
Geneseo Wadsworth Library PASS 91 9
Glens Falls Crandall Public Library PASS 63 37
Hancock Louise Adelia Read Memorial PL PASS 88 12
Hopewell Junction East Fishkill Community Library PASS 86 14
Hudson Hudson Area Library PARTIAL PASS** 61 39
Hyde Park Hyde Park Free Library PASS 99 1
Kingston Kingston Public Library PASS 83 17
Mahopac Mahopac Public Library PASS 83 17
Middle Island Longwood Public Library PASS 78 22
New Hyde Park Hillside Public Library PASS 77 23
Norwich Guernsey Memorial Library PASS 72 28
Owego Coburn Library PASS 69 31
Oxford Oxford Memorial Library PASS 87 13
Poughquag Beekman Public Library PASS 55 45
Red Hook Red Hook Public Library PASS 75 25
Rhinebeck Clinton Community Library PASS 63 37
Riverhead Riverhead Free Library PASS 63 37
Rosendale Rosendale Library PASS 77 23
Saugerties Saugerties Library District PASS 89 11
Ulster Town of Ulster Library District PASS 98 2
West Hurley West Hurley Public Library PASS 91 9
Woodstock Woodstock Public Library District PASS 83 17
Archbold Archbold Community Library PASS 72 28
Ashtabula Harbor Topky Public Library PASS 76 24
Barnesville Barnesville Hutton Memorial Library PASS 67 33
Belmont Belmont County Library District PASS 73 27
Bettsville Bettsville Public Library PASS 81 19
Cleveland Cleveland Public Library PASS 69 31
Coshocton Coshocton County District Library PASS 56 44
Defiance Defiance Public Library PASS 77 23
Huron Huron Public Library PASS 71 29
Kingsville Kingsville Public Library District PASS 64 36
Loudonville Loudonville Public Library PASS 69 31
Medina Medina County District Library PASS 66 34
Mentor Mentor Public Library PASS 69 31
Mt. Victory Ridgemont Public Library PASS 74 26
Oakwood Wright Memorial Public Library PASS 77 23
Orrville Orrville Public Library PASS 87 13
Pomeroy Meigs County District PL PASS 70 30
Richwood Richwood-North Union PL PASS 67 33
Rossford Rossford Public Library PASS 75 25
St. Paris St. Paris Public Library PASS 57 43
Union Union Carnegie Public Library PASS 51 49
Urbana Champaign County Library PASS 70 30
Warrenton Warrenton Community Library PASS 55 45
Wooster Wayne County Public Library PASS 61 39
Greensburg Greensburg-Hempfield Area Library PARTIAL PASS*** 50 50
Kennett Square Bayard Taylor Memorial Library PASS 61 39
Bremerton Kitsap Regional Library PASS 62 38
Castle Rock Castle Rock Public Library PASS 69 31
Spokane Spokane Public Library PASS 71 29
* a loss for the library communities
** passed by ONE out of TWO

A patchwork of taxes & vocabulary

Part of talking about what we believe about public libraries and library work needs to include how we fund our institutions. The type of tax that will be on the ballot, as well as the vocabulary for that tax, changes from state to state and across regions. As a voter, where you live determines whether you are voting on a levy, a warrant article, a referendum, a parcel tax, a sales or use tax, a bond, or a millage for your library—not to mention whether you can vote on the future of your library at all.

In places such as Mississippi and Hawaii, voters never directly consider the tax rate for their public libraries. Some states, like Oregon and Missouri, levy taxes based on property. So whether the library is a stand-alone district where voters occasionally vote on a tax measure or a department of local government, taxpayers will see a line on their tax bill for their library. In other states, there are multiple types of taxes for libraries, but it varies by jurisdiction as to where the revenue is raised. In California, for example, libraries are funded through a mechanism called parcel taxes, in which each unit of property is taxed at an equal rate regardless of value. But California libraries can also potentially be funded through local sales taxes—it depends on the county. In parts of New England, libraries are funded through the general revenue account of the town, but voters need to approve a “warrant” for new spending. Without passing that warrant article, funding may continue at the same rate as the previous year. In states such as Indiana and New Jersey, voters can approve the baseline for tax funding for library services.

In New Jersey, it is within their municipality, while in Indiana it comes through a district that may or may not be concurrent with the voter’s hometown. Across much of the country, the terms levy, millage, and mill levy are used to describe a tax based on the “assessed value” of the property. In states like Illinois and Wisconsin, the local assessor’s office has a formula to determine the “equalized assessed value” of the property. But in Montana, the assessor references the commercial value of the property. In other areas, school districts or other units of government are the taxing authorities for the local library, and the calculations are particular to that relationship. In many jurisdictions, residential, commercial, and farm properties are taxed at different rates.

Library Governance Referenda 2017

McCall Donnelly Library District PASS 79 21
Mason City Mason City Public Library District PASS 74 26
California Moniteau County Library District PASS 75 25
Tipton Price James Memorial Library PASS 58 42
Rochelle Park Rochelle Park Library PASS 79 21
Vestal Vestal Public Library PASS 79 21
St. Clairsville St. Clairsville Public Library PASS 70 30
Grants Pass Josephine Community Library District PASS 53 47
Lake Stevens Sno-Isle Libraries PASS 69 31
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.

New pressures and possibilities

With any tax there exists a system of exemptions and loopholes. In Michigan, libraries and other sectors of local government are seeing a significant problem because large corporate landlords are using an exemption designed to abate the rate for “dark” or unoccupied stores by claiming that exemption for fully occupied stores as well. If enough taxable parcels are removed from the tax rolls, local government, including public libraries and schools, suffers from a local recession. The Michigan Library Association is at the forefront of fighting this problem. However, it is also seen elsewhere in the country. In 2018, voters in Florida will likely consider a “Homestead Exemption” for local property taxes. If enacted, units of government across the Sunshine State will experience a freeze or decline in revenue of the kind that colleagues in California (under Prop 13) and Colorado (under TABOR) have suffered under—and have been attempting to ameliorate or reverse—for years.

With the new federal “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” two additional pressure points on state and local taxes will likely come to the fore. One is the new $10,000 cap on deductions for State and Local Taxes (SALT). The other is the significant diminishment of federal revenues over the next decade that will likely force policy changes. The 2017 tax law was signed ten days before it went into effect. As of this writing, everyone from state treasurers and city/county managers to big Wall Street firms to the National Council of Non-Profits are still trying to figure out exactly what the impact will be on their clients, their portfolios, and their local government receipts. As changes to federal tax law are implemented, one thing should be clear for library leaders: expect new pressures on local funding sources and significant alterations to available federal and state sources of funding.

While the federal tax code does not change or impact the local funding formula directly, capping the SALT deduction can create a political climate in which it becomes more difficult to pass additional local government taxes, especially in high local tax areas. If there is already a hold-back or tax cap in place for libraries in your state, the SALT deduction caps may make it even more difficult to pass new library funding. In places without a hold-back or cap, the SALT changes could potentially function as a “political cap” on new taxes for local government, including libraries, in light of changes in federal funding.

Currently, 41 states have some form of income tax that funds state government. Nearly all of those have a degree of “linkage” and “conformity” within their state income tax scheme to the federal system. With federal tax rates changing, each of these linked states is reviewing its revenue projections for the current fiscal year. For some states, these changes will compound already weak revenue projections for the remainder of the current fiscal year. However, the 2017 Tax Act forecasts a loss of $1.5 trillion in top-line revenue for the federal government over the next ten years. That loss is impossible to offset without cuts to either the military or entitlements, neither of which appear to be feasible, or massive cuts to federal programs. With about 31% of all state revenue coming not from local taxes but from federal funding, what happens when there is simply less money moving to the states and subsequently to local services and budgets?

Building Referenda 2017

Boulder Boulder Public Library, North Boulder Branch PASS 82 18
Denver Denver Public Library PASS 70 30
Windsor Clearview Library District FAIL 45 55
Coventry Booth & Dimock Library FAIL 46 54
Madison Scranton Memorial Library PASS 78 22
Mountain Home Mountain Home Public Library PASS 58 42
Wilder Wilder Public Library District FAIL 50 50
Geneva Geneva Public Library District PASS 51 49
Plainfield Plainfield Public Library District FAIL 35 65
Villa Park Villa Park Public Library PASS 64 36
Ankeny Kirkendall Public Library PASS 72 28
Hiawatha Hiawatha Public Library PASS 76 24
Carbondale Carbondale City Library PASS 52 48
Tonganoxie Tonganoxie Public Library PASS 64 36
Kittery Rice Public Library PASS* 58 n/a
Grafton Grafton Public Library PASS 56 44
Norwell Norwell Public Library PASS 89 11
Marquette Peter White Public Library PASS 81 19
South Haven South Haven Memorial Library PASS 74 26
Nixa Christian County Library PASS 68 32
Sainte Genevieve Sainte Genevieve County Library PASS 57 43
Columbus Columbus Public Library FAIL 46 54
Statewide New Jersey Statewide Construction Bond PASS 60 40
Brewster Brewster Public Library PASS 57 43
Hampton Bays Hampton Bays Public Library FAIL 37 63
Henrietta Henrietta Public Library PASS 62 38
Lindenhurst Lindenhurst Memorial Library FAIL 43 57
Stony Point Rose Memorial Library FAIL 49 51
Elyria Elyria Public Library System PASS 50 50
Louisville Louisville Public Library FAIL 35 65
Middlefield Geauga County Library District PASS 51 49
Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System PASS 61 39
Salem Salem Public Library PASS 63 37
Dallas Dallas Public Library PASS 76 24
Houston Houston Public Library PASS 73 27
San Marcos San Marcos Public Library PASS 77 23
Santaquin City Santaquin City Cultural Center FAIL 35 65
Shelburne Pierson Library PASS 55 45
Lake Stevens Sno-Isle Libraries FAIL** 66 34
* rehabilitation/expansion choice won, and New library Failed
** did not reach the 8,464 ballot (40% of people who voted in the previous election) threshold


We have a lot to celebrate in 2017, and EveryLibrary feels we now need to push that positive energy forward by preparing for the possible cascading effect of new federal tax laws and crowded ballots in 2018. Local polling and data will be key to unlocking the shared values and attitudes toward taxes in your community. Such insights can empower your team members to talk clearly about their professional values, keeping the positive perception of your library on the minds of voters in the anticipated packed ballots of 2018. To survive this massive structural shift in how we tax ourselves, library leaders must plan to create ongoing and sustained success with their voters at the ballot box for district libraries and with local elected officials for departmental library budgets. If you haven’t gone out to the ballot in a long time, why not now? Let 2017 serve as an inspiration to you, your board, your colleagues, and your constituents.

John Chrastka is Executive Director of the political action committee EveryLibrary and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker. Erica Findley is Development Director, EveryLibrary, and Catalog/Metadata Librarian, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR

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