One of the ways we measure the support for public libraries is through the success or failure of local library referenda. We look back on the previous year cheering the wins and also wondering why some library elections fail. This roundup considers factors related to the success or failure of library referenda and includes a brief listing and summary of some 2013 results.
As libraries look forward, the question to ask is this: What factors influence people to vote yes or no on library referenda? The overarching challenge of developing a successful referendum campaign is to build trust and establish a compelling need. Meeting that challenge requires a campaign that clearly identifies three key things: (1) the amount of money needed, (2) how long the tax will last, and (3) a justification that resonates with the community.
Some specific steps to influence success include hiring a consultant, formulating a marketing strategy, and sustaining an active campaign in the community. Factors that we cannot control include the demographic characteristics of the voters and the electoral context. Additionally, off-year elections, such as in 2013, have lower voter turnout compared with elections held during years with state and federal races.
The amount of money sought is another factor to consider when requesting support. There appears to be no correlation between the amount of money requested and whether a referendum passes or fails. The table below illustrates this idea. The list includes referenda that passed during 2013 with 80% or greater support. The number of voters, the type of referendum, and the amount approved vary greatly. As we might expect, lower numbers of voters correspond with lower amounts requested and are indicative of a smaller population in the service area.
A Snapshot of Success
During 2013, voters approved 41 of 69 local library referenda. Notable wins include Wasilla, Alaska ($15 million); Round Rock, Texas ($23 million); Tolland, Connecticut ($2.6 million); and Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina ($59 million). (The results of several other initiatives—such as those in New York’s Rockville Centre, Massena, Cutchogue, New Suffolk, and Lewisboro, as well as Pennsylvania’s Salisbury—are expected by the end of 2013.)
On November 5, the voters of Richland Library turned out to pass a $59 million bond referendum, which received 66% yes votes. Taxpayers will see a maximum increase of $12 to $14 per year in their property taxes for a $100,000 home. The bond proceeds will be used for extensive renovations to several library buildings and will fund two new branches.
What were the secrets to success for the library? Thorough planning, dedicated library supporters, and a lot of hard work in publicizing the need for the referendum. The library developed a capital needs plan in 2007, its first since 1989, and updated the plan each year. It included addressing environmental issues (such as the promise of using green building guidelines) and economic issues (such as taking advantage of low interest rates). In February 2013, Richland Library’s rebranding campaign received several awards during the American Advertising Federation of the Midlands annual ceremony. Competing with other agencies and corporations, the library won a Gold Addy for its new logo, name, and website, among other things. And it received two Silver Addys specifically for the logo and stationery package. The rebranding emphasizes the evolution of public libraries and their role as a community hub.
Since 2009, the number of people visiting the library has gone up 20%, and the number of items checked out has increased 38%.
- In the city of Wasilla voters passed a 1% sales-tax increase to fund the construction of a new Wasilla Public Library. The tax begins January 1, 2014, and will continue until $15 million is collected or December 31, 2016, whichever occurs first. Other funding sources are being sought, including a library construction grant from the state. Construction of the 23,500-square-foot building will begin in spring 2015. Parking will increase from 14 spaces to 90. Plans include multipurpose rooms, study rooms, a teen area, storytime space, and a business center.
- Residents in Santa Clara County voted to renew the tax rate of $33.66 for each single-family home. The all-mail ballot passed by 82%. The tax provides 18% of the library’s revenue. The operating funds are used to help continue existing library hours and services, offer children’s programs, provide an award-winning bookmobile program, maintain children’s reading programs, update the collection, and keep qualified librarians on staff.
- Voters in Lyons failed to support a property tax that would have maintained current funding levels for the existing library and the eventual expansion or replacement of the building. The September floods may have factored into the November results (542 yes votes; 573 no votes), as many residents remained displaced from their homes. The request, for up to 5.85 mills, would have resulted in a tax of $140 a year on the assessed value of a $300,000 house. The library district board was set to collect only half of the rate for 2014.
- Voters in Tolland passed a bond that will provide $2.6 million for a library expansion project. The Tolland Public Library Advisory Board, assisted by the Friends of Tolland Public Library and the Tolland Public Library Foundation, led a successful “YES for a Better Library” campaign. Efforts to promote the bond included visits to the Lions Club, parent-teacher organizations, the senior center, the community women’s volunteer club, and the local Republican and Democratic committees. Voting results: 1,707 yeses and 1,284 nos.
- North Bingham County District Library voters failed to pass a bond for the third time in recent years. The request for a $5 million bond to build a new library drew 922 votes in favor and 1,251 votes against. The monthly tax increase would have been about $4.44 on a home valued at $150,000.
- Voters in the city of Burley opted to renew the public library property-tax levy of $231,000 per year for two years. The yes votes tallied to 430 (56.5%); the no votes tallied to 331 (43.5%). The funds are for operations and maintenance of the Burley Public Library.
- Voters approved $1.68 million in general obligation bonds for the Six Mile Regional Library District in Granite City. Taxes will not increase since the debt will be paid from the existing building and maintenance levy. Yes votes totaled 3,480 (71 %), and no votes totaled 1,403 (29%). The funds are required to match a $2.2 million grant from the Illinois State Library. The bond money will be used to remodel and improve the library buildings.
- Illinoisans also passed library referenda in:
- Peach Orchard Township (69% to 31%)
- Atlanta Public Library District (53% to 47%)
- Village of Williamsville (70% to 30%)
- Referenda were rejected in:
- Village of Lyons Public Library District (34% to 66%)
- Mercer Carnegie Public Library District (43% to 57%)
- Shorewood-Troy Public Library District (21% to 79%)
- Richton Park Public Library District (48.5% to 51.5%)
- Oregon Public Library District (42% to 58%)
- On November 5, voters rejected a measure for a special tax to fund additional staff and to expand the Hiawatha Public Library. The proposed levy—for 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation—failed 53% to 47%, by 949 total votes.
- Voters in Tangipahoa Parish passed their referendum with 7,836 (61%) yes votes and 5,004 (39%) nos.
- The Shrewsbury referendum passed with 4,842 (59%) yes votes and 3,311 (41%) no votes.
- Alpena County Library won support for two millage requests: one for a renewal for 10 years at the cost of 0.75 mill (the vote was 3,197 yeses and 831 nos), and the second for five years at 0.25 mill (2,511 yeses; 1,493 nos). The funds will support new programs and structural repairs to the library.
- The Public Libraries of Saginaw succeeded with a vote for the renewal of a 10-year, 1.2983-mill tax. The vote was 4,039 in favor and 826 opposed. The funds, approximately $943,000 each year, support operations in the five public library branches. The tax is about $45 per year on the assessed value of a $35,000 home.
- Residents of Bath Township voted no on a request for 0.25 mill. The funds, about $89,000 the first year, would have been used to establish and operate a new library. Currently Bath Township has privileges at the DeWitt District Library. A new library would have diverted about $58,000 a year from the DeWitt library. If the referendum had passed, Bath residents would have had to pay a nonresident fee to check out materials from the DeWitt District Library. The votes totaled 299 yeses and 625 nos.
- Voters in Dearborn Heights narrowly won support for the Caroline Kennedy Library and the John F. Kennedy Jr. Library. The vote tally was 3,479 in favor and 3,254 against the request for 0.95 mills. Owners of a $100,000 home will pay approximately $95 per year. The funds will be used to improve collections and facilities.
- The Taney County Library District tax failed to pass, with 65% of the 5,509 residents voting no and 35% voting yes. The county has two privately funded libraries. The proposed tax, which would have raised a 15% levy per $100 of assessed personal property and real estate valuation, would have funded a countywide library district.
- In Hot Springs voters rejected the bond issue, with 135 (38%) yes votes to 220 (62%) no votes. The levy would have raised 12.36 mills, or about $200,000, for the continued operations of the Preston Hot Springs Town County Library.
- The Ronan City Library will now be a part of the new Ronan Library District because of a bond that passed, with 873 (62%) yes votes to 545 (38%) no votes. The levy will increase the library budget from about $15,000 to $200,000. The district will serve Ronan, Pablo, and the entire community of School District 30.
- Voters in East Greenwich Township said no to a referendum that would have provided about $343,437 for a township library. The vote (22% yeses to 78% nos) stopped the movement to leave the Gloucester County Library System (GCLS). The current East Greenwich branch in Mickleton, New Jersey, one of seven libraries in the county system, has been closed since December 13, 2013. The branch building leases for only $1 per year but is in need of major renovations. After the branch closed, East Greenwich has continued to pay $471,456 in county library taxes, and residents will continue to have access to the other libraries in the GCLS.
- Town of Rhinebeck residents voted to increase the tax levy for the Morton Memorial Library from $35,000 to $77,000. In 2006, a $35,000 tax levy replaced the $12,000 income from the city budget. The funds will support library operations and a possible salary hike for staff.
- The Brookville Library District bond failed with 21 (10%) yes votes and 181 (90%) no votes.
- The vote for the Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls passed with 6,552 (58.5%) yes votes and 4,650 (41.5%) no votes.
- The vote in Athens passed with 42 (90%) yeses and 5 (10%) nos.
- The bond for Heermance Memorial Library in Coxsackie passed with 129 (95%) yes votes and 7 (5%) no votes.
- Ashtabula County voters passed a 1.25-mill, 10-year levy by a narrow margin. The unofficial tally, as of early December, was 5,087 votes for and 4,993 against. The Ashtabula County District Library consists of the Ashtabula Library, the Geneva Library, and a bookmobile. The library has been operating on funding levels set in 1996. The funding will support operating costs.
- The Cleveland Public Library passed a renewal for a property tax levy. The $28.5 million levy passed with 40,204 (75.8%) yes votes and 12,794 (24.2%) no votes.
- The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County levy was passed with 80% of voters in favor. Homeowners will not see a tax increase because the levy was a renewal. The levy will bring about $181 million to the library over the next 10 years. The funds will be used for operating expenses and maintenance. The levy will provide about 33% of the library budget.
- The Garnet A. Wilson Public Library in Waverly was successful in a request to renew a 1-mill levy. The renewal is crucial because state revenues remain down, and the funds will constitute about 40% of the library’s budget. The levy was passed with 72% of the votes.
- The Troy–Miami County Public Library levy passed with about 65% of the vote. The levy of 6 mills was first passed in 2009. The funds will be used for operating expenses and capital projects such as replacing the chillers and a new membrane roof.
- Voters approved the Franklin-Springboro Public Library request to renew a 1-mill levy. The levy provides 51% of the library budget and is used for operating expenses. The votes represented all 42 precincts, with 59% voting in favor of the levy. The Franklin-Springboro Public Library serves residents of Franklin, the village of Carlisle, Springboro, and Clearcreek Township.
- In Worthington, a permanent levy, which replaces a 22-year, 2.2-mill levy passed by voters in 1992, will generate an estimated $3.9 million annually for the library system, which has three locations. The library also collects property taxes from a 2.6-mill permanent levy passed in 2005.
- In Corvallis, taxpayers voted in favor of a five-year levy to support services at the Corvallis–Benton County Public Library, the Osborn Aquatic Center, and the senior center, and for new positions at the city’s police department, fire department, and community development department. Property owners will pay approximately 82 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value.
- In Cornelius, voters rejected a $2.4 million bond to fund a new library. Property taxes would have increased annually by about $52 for the owner of a $180,000 home, and the new library would have cost roughly $4.8 million total. Other funding was being sought to supplement the bond proceeds.
- Allentown voters rejected a tax request for $13 million to build a new Parkland Community Library. The race was close: 49% for, 51% against.
- The Homestead tax stipend of $215,000 passed with 180 (62%) yes votes and 112 (38%) no votes.
- Voters in Round Rock recognized the need for more library space, and voted in favor of a $23.2 million bond proposition. The funds will be used to build a 60,000-square-foot main library and an additional branch. The tallied votes were 3,459 in favor and 2,293 against.
- Seguin succeeded in requesting $14.8 million in bonds for a new library. The votes were 2,132 (63%) for and 1,265 (37%) against.
- In February, the City of Spokane passed a levy lid lift at 7 cents per $1,000 through 2017, increasing Spokane Library's hours of operation. The vote was 27,358 (66%) for and 13,989 (34%) against.
- The City of Port Townsend Library bond requesting $3 million failed, with 1,392 (39%) for and 2,206 (61%) against.
- The Ferndale City Public Library bond requesting $500,000 passed, with 1,728 (62.1%) for and 1,054 (37.9%) against.
KATHY ROSA is director of ALA’s Office for Research and Statistics, which provides leadership and expert advice to ALA staff, members, and the public on all matters related to research and statistics about libraries, librarians, and other library staff; represents the Association to federal agencies on these issues; and initiates projects needed to expand the knowledge base of the field through research and the collection of useful statistics.
Updated Dec. 30, 2013