Referenda Roundup, 2003: Many Celebrations, Some Major Disappointments

Despite dreary fiscal times for state governments, voters in many districts came out November 4 in favor of tax measures to support their local libraries. Aided by numerous volunteers and Friends who got the message out through leaflets, websites, and telephone canvassing, public and school libraries did well with funding new buildings, renovations, and services. But some significant bond issues did not fare well, forcing libraries to make hard choices just to stay above water.

Akron–Summit County (Ohio) Public Library officials were taken by surprise when voters rejected a 1.4-mill tax levy that would have supported library operations for the next six years. Trustees were quickly forced to decide how to handle a funding shortfall of $5.1 million, or 20% of the library’s entire budget, for 2004 and possibly beyond.

“I’m so bloody stunned,” board President James Switzer said in the November 8 Akron Beacon-Journal. “I didn’t expect this. We’re still going around saying, ‘What happened?’” At a special meeting held November 13, trustees agreed to put another measure on the March ballot. Even if it passes, the library must go a full year without an operating levy, although it could borrow against expected tax revenue to take the edge off inevitable cuts.

Library Director Steven Hawk suggested that service hours could be reduced by 20% and materials purchases by 40%, but the board postponed making any specific recommendations—including possible staff layoffs—until its finance committee examines the 2004 budget in detail, the Beacon-Journal reported November 13.

The last time Akron–Summit County voters rejected a library levy was 1961, when a bond issue to build a new downtown library was defeated; however, the measure passed on a second try the following year.

Close call in Colorado

Mesa County, Colorado, library supporters were chagrined when two referenda failed by narrow margins. Referendum 5A, which lost by only 46 votes, would have provided an extra $500,000 for operating and staffing costs, while 5B, which came up about 1,000 short, would have purchased bonds for a new $15.7-million central library building in Grand Junction.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Library Director Terry Pickens. “We are going to have to regroup. The problems with the building are not going to be easily solved.” Pickens had been pushing for this bond measure since 1997. The current cramped and leaking library has been housed in a former grocery store for the past 30 years.

Despite the fact that 102,000 patrons used the facility last year, officials will have to work harder in the future to convince residents that libraries are a good investment. As one local woman told a KJCT-TV reporter, “I think libraries are becoming dinosaurs [what with] the Internet and all the electronics available to most families now. There’s only a small portion of the community that makes use of the library.”

American Libraries’ state-by-state roundup of library referenda and other local ballot measures throughout the year is based on reports from online news sources and state library agencies.

ARKANSAS. Voters in Baxter County rejected two millage proposals in October that would have purchased and renovated a former supermarket as a home for the county library and raised support levels from 0.9 to two mills. In May, residents of Rogers approved a $2-million bond issue for the city library.

CALIFORNIA. Despite support from the mayor and city attorney, voters failed to pass Measure O, a new library tax that would have helped fund San Bernardino Public Library operations for the next 10 years and paid half of the debt on a bond used to build its main branch. The cost to a single-family residence would have been only $1.67 per month. The library’s acquisitions budget dropped to zero this year because of state budget cuts.

More than two-thirds of Burbank voters approved Measure L February 25 to raise money to replace the city’s Central and Northwest branches. However, in October the city failed to win a $20-million state grant to cover two-thirds of the cost and must compete again for funding next year or the local measure will expire.

In Davis, Measure N won by 77%, allowing junior and high school libraries to stay open after school. Pico Rivera voters passed a $49.5-million bond that will upgrade libraries in the El Rancho Unified School District.

Only 65.2%—just short of the required two-thirds—of voters in Contra Costa County said yes to a $90 parcel tax that would have provided salaries for school librarians in the district. Acton residents rejected a $13.1-million construction bond that included funds for building a library for Vasquez High School.

COLORADO. Basalt voters rejected a proposal to borrow $5.1 million to build a new branch in El Jebel and expand the existing regional library. A well-funded group called Citizens for One Library generated opposition to the measure by arguing that the district was better off building a larger facility in Basalt. However, as library board member Peter Frey commented, “Nobody’s been able to come up with a plan for one library that would get support throughout the entire district.” Trustees decided November 10 to close the library on Mondays beginning in January because of a budget shortfall caused in part by the cost of campaigning for the proposal.

Boulder Public Library will not have to cut hours as much as it feared, thanks to the restoration of $618,000 in its operating expenses from a sales tax extension. Arapahoe Library District won a tax increase for operating funds with a 57.1% yes vote. More than 56% of Louisville voters agreed to pay $7.4 million for a new city library. Clear Creek and West Custer County library districts won bids to increase their millages.

The Pikes Peak Library District failed to get funding for six new branches with only 45.4% of residents voting yes.

CONNECTICUT. Voters approved by more than two to one a $6.05-million expansion and renovation of the Windsor Public Library. Salem residents authorized a $1.6-million bond February 26 to finance a new town library.

In Monroe, townspeople voted 204 to 7 September 29 to appropriate $5.3 million for a new 21,000-square-foot library. “Instead of doing things makeshift,” said Library Director Robert Gallucci, “we will have the space to do things right.”

FLORIDA. Citizens of Boynton Beach rejected a bond proposal to fund a $6.1-million expansion of the city library. Supporters could lose a hard-fought $500,000 state grant if the city can’t find another way to fund the project by December 23.

GEORGIA. Peachtree City residents narrowly approved $4.9 million in bonds to renovate the 16-year-old library. Preliminary plans include a new entrance, a children’s area, a multipurpose room, cell-phone booths, a fireplace reading area, a teen center, and additional computers.

More than 57% of Rockdale County voters rejected an extension of a 1% special-purpose, local-option sales tax that would have provided for a $4.3-million restoration and expansion of the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library in Conyers, as well as $1.2 million for books and materials.

IDAHO. Lewiston lost its bid for a $3.5-million bond levy for a new building with only 62% voting yes. Bonds require a super-majority of 67% to carry.

A library for Blanchard became a strong possibility after supporters in Old Town, Blanchard, and Freeman Lake voted to join the West Bonner Library District in Priest River, ensuring library service for all of rural Bonner County.

ILLINOIS. Voters trounced two proposals in April by the Cook Memorial Public Library District that would have resulted in a new main library in downtown Libertyville and a new branch in Vernon Hills. The Town and Country Public Library in Elburn also lost a funding vote in April, but voters in Norridge and Harwood Heights approved funds to build a new two-story library and Williamsville residents approved a special library tax.

INDIANA. In April, Crete voters rejected by 1,937 to 1,096 a tax-rate increase to cover operating expenses for its 10-year-old library, forcing officials to reexamine budget options. “This rejection by the community really disappointed me,” Board President Rand Mucha said. “We were beaten badly. I am appalled by the number of people who did not vote.”

IOWA. Davenport voters approved a property-tax measure to fund the operation of two new branch libraries. The tax is expected to generate more than $600,000 per year. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held November 5 at the site of a new branch on the city’s west side.

Kalona overwhelmingly passed a $1.4-million bond issue for a new library with 81% of voters in favor. Library Director Anne Skaden said she was pleasantly surprised by the margin of support for the measure. The new library will be four or five times the size of the existing library, which was built in 1914.

Cedar Rapids voters reapproved for another 10 years a special levy that raises $180,000 annually for library books. Public libraries in Ottumwa and Pocahontas both won requests for a property-tax levy of 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Jewel voters passed a special assessment levy for library services that will raise about $6,000 per year for library use. And in July, Centerville residents passed a one-cent local-option sales tax, with 25% of the revenue going to the library.

LOUISIANA. Livingston Parish residents October 4 approved by 57% a 20-year, 4.86-mill property tax to build branches in Denham Springs, Watson, and the southern part of the parish. In addition, the tax will fund an expansion to the main library in Livingston and extended hours in all the branches.

In May, Rapides Parish voters approved by 86% the 10-year renewal of a 6.08-mill property tax that will allow the library system to maintain its present level of service. If the tax had failed, the parish library system would have had to shut down completely by the end of 2004.

MAINE. A statewide referendum seeking $1.5 million for grants to construct and renovate public libraries and to improve community access to electronic resources passed by 55%. The Maine State Library will allocate the grants, which will need to be matched by local funds.

MASSACHUSETTS. Plans for a new $8-million, 28,500-square-foot regional library to serve Mendon and Upton were rejected by voters in both towns. Upton Library Trustee David Anderson voted against the plan, saying he preferred the town to have its own new library instead of a shared facility in Mendon. Other opponents cited uncertain fiscal times and an unwillingness for the towns to engage in an annual tug-of-war over library funding. Disappointed proponents complained that the existing substandard facilities have no room for expansion and are not handicapped-accessible.

Pembroke residents restored $36,000 to their library’s budget, allowing it to retain state certification. But Berlin failed three times during the year to approve $1.08 million in matching funds for a state grant to build a larger, handicapped-accessible library.

In October, Lunenburg residents voted 1,414 to 649 for a bond to fund a new $1.8-million library. The result ensures that the library will receive a $1.78-million state grant that would have expired in November.

In May, voters in Ashland and Ashby approved library expansion projects. The Ashland Public Library will get a $3-million facelift that will quadruple its size, while the Ashby Free Public Library received more than $250,000 for an upgrade.

MICHIGAN. Royal Oak voters passed by 58% a 20-year, 1-mill levy that will generate $1.75 million annually for library operations and improvements. The new tax means the library will no longer depend on the cash-strapped city, which had intended to lay off 25 part-time library workers January 1 as part of a plan to offset a deficit of $4 million. Library Director Carol Windorf said after the tally the first thing she would do with the revenue is hire a new children’s librarian.

Residents of Hamtramck gave a slim approval in September to an extra library tax that will generate about $150,000 a year and allow it to maintain its current hours and hire a full-time children’s librarian. The 1.9-mill ballot question passed by only 22 votes.

The Van Buren District Library will be able to build a new branch on donated property in Lawrence, thanks to a 1.5-mill levy passed in August, but Otsego County voters turned down by a two-to-one margin a proposal to build and furnish a new main library in Gaylord. The Capital Area District Library in Lansing won by 59% a 1.46-mill increase for three years beginning in January to extend library hours and improve services.

In May, Portland District Library voters approved 561 to 180 the first library expansion in its 100-year history. A 20-year bond will raise up to $2.94 million for a 10,000-square-foot addition to the existing building. The same month, voters in the Tecumseh area nixed by 66 votes a new 20-year tax to fund its library operations, but passed a 10-year, 1.15-mill levy in October to keep the library running. The board anticipates it will begin restoring lost hours, services, and staff in January.

MISSOURI. Carthage residents resoundingly approved 589 to 286 a sales-tax increase to help fund a $4.5-million expansion of the public library. “It’s just a dream come true,” said Library Director Jennifer Seaton as the votes came in. The 20-year tax will fund a 13,480-square-foot addition and renovation of the 1905 Carnegie library, but supporters first need to raise $2 million in private contributions over the next 12 months. The exterior plans call for using the same type and color of limestone as in the original structure.

NEBRASKA. In January 2003, Lexington voters rejected 527 to 341 a proposal for a $1.5-million bond measure to build a new library.

NEVADA. Las Vegas residents in June voted 62% against issuing $50.6 million in bonds to build four branches in the city and parts of Clark County, including a brand-new facility in Mesquite. The measure failed despite the library’s $48,000 efforts to promote it.

NEW JERSEY. Bridgeton voters approved by 803 to 478 a referendum to have city officials explore the option of letting the Cumberland County Library take responsibility for the operations of the Bridgeton Free Public Library, one of several departments in danger of closing due to the city’s $1.397-million budget gap. Bridgeton Head Librarian Gail Robinson expressed doubt about the option’s feasibility. “As far as I know there is no legal way to make that happen,” she said. “It would require new legislation. It would require a whole new organization of the county library.” County librarian Nancy Forester said the cost of running the city library is “about half of our budget and we certainly don’t have another half of our budget to donate to Bridgeton.”

NEW YORK. Thanks to a measure passed by voters that allows taxpayers to vote directly on the budget rather than relying on private donations, the Starr Library in Rhinebeck will get a total of $160,000 next year that will allow it to expand hours from 36 to 48 a week.

Stillwater voters approved an increase in their library’s budget from $58,850 to $127,360, allowing the library to operate 35 hours per week as mandated by the state. Unfortunately, the new formula could result in double-taxing certain residents for the library, and officials are attempting a fix by either allowing exemptions or creating a special tax district.

Poughkeepsie residents handily approved a $3.3-million budget for the library district in 2004 as well as $641,262 for additional parking at the Adriance branch. The Millbrook Library won $100,000 in annual municipal funding by a slim margin of 29 votes, but voters in LaGrange defeated a funding increase of $199,160 earmarked for computers and other technology.

In October, Ossining residents supported 1,640 to 633 a $15.8-million bond to build a new library. The project calls for the construction of a three-story, 45,000-square-foot facility with a performing arts space and an art gallery by 2005. “It’s the most important building that will be built in our community in the next five years,” said Town Supervisor John Chervokas. The same month, voters overwhelmingly rejected a $35-million bond issue for a new 82,000-square-foot library in Patchogue and a new branch in Medford, while Pittsford residents got their wish for a $9-million facility.

In June, the Peninsula Public Library in Lawrence saw its annual budget defeated for the first time since 1959. The measure would have added funding by $80,430 in order to accommodate a mandatory increase in employee benefits.

Citizens of New Rochelle voted 7,269 to 4,531 to approve a $3-million property tax to keep the public library from closing its doors July 1. “People have said philanthropy should take care of it,” said Reference Supervisor Beth Mills. “I personally think that’s a little unrealistic when you’re talking about $3 million every year.” The city halted the library’s funding when it became aware of a 1996 state law requiring small cities to fund their libraries through a separate tax.

NORTH CAROLINA. Chapel Hill voters passed by a 76% majority a $16.26-million facility bond to expand the public library, while Durham residents approved by 79% a $4.7-million bond package for a new 25,000-square-foot regional library to replace the aging Parkwood branch.

In October, Wake County passed a $35-million capital bond to fund two regional branches in Cary and Wakefield, two smaller branches in Leesville and Holly Springs, and a major renovation of the North Regional Library in Wake Forest.

OHIO. Only seven of 14 library levies passed in November during a crucial year when state aid is stagnant or down due to declining income tax revenues, according to Ohio Library Council Government Relations Director Lynda Murray. “We usually pass our levies at a rate of 75 to 80%, so this is the worst we’ve done,” she said.

In addition to Akron­–Summit County (see above), levies were defeated in Gallipolis, Elyria, Louisville, Marysville, St. Clairsville, and Stark County.

In the good news department, Toledo–Lucas County Public Library saw its proposal for a four-year, 1-mill operating levy pass by a wide margin. About $7.8 million will be earmarked for more books, better computer facilities, and the resumption of Sunday library hours. Library Director Clyde Scoles said the funds will “stop the dismantling we’ve experienced” following last year’s $1.6-million cut in state aid.

Voters in Rocky River adopted a property tax to pay for the public library’s daily operation and to complete a $3-million renovation. The Madison Public Library was successful in its first bid to ask taxpayers for operating expenses, and Kent voters approved a property tax that will pay for a $13.5-million library expansion. Citizens also renewed levies for public libraries in Delta, Zanesfield, and Wayne County. The Mansfield–Richland County Public Library gained an additional operating levy passed by 52% of the voters, allowing it to restore hours and jobs eliminated since June. “We can’t take state dollars for granted,” said MRCPL Director Joe Palmer.

In May, Cleveland Public Library’s telephone campaign to 14,000 eligible voters paid off with 60% approval for a five-year levy that will generate $31.5 million annually, while Lakewood voters approved a $12.5-million bond to double the library’s size by 2007.

OKLAHOMA. Johnston County voters greenlighted a 1-mill levy in May to support the operation of the Chickasaw Regional Library branch in Tishomingo.

OREGON. Tillamook County residents narrowly passed a $3.7-million general-obligation bond measure in September to build a new headquarters library. Sweet Home voters passed a four-year operating levy that allowed its city library to reopen; the facility closed after the previous election in May, which failed to generate a required 50% voter turnout.

PENNSYLVANIA. Residents of Robinson Township in suburban Pittsburgh voted 59.2% in favor of dedicating one-tenth of a mill of current township funds to creating and maintaining a library. The tax will generate about $132,000 annually. Township commissioners had lobbied against the referendum, but lost a court challenge to have the words “will not result in a tax increase” removed.

RHODE ISLAND. In June, voters in Cumberland approved by 61% a bond to raise $400,000 for the completion of repairs to the library, including replacing the roof and lighting.

TEXAS. By a margin of only two votes, citizens of Taylor passed, 501 to 499, a $3.4-million ballot measure to erect a new 20,000-square-foot library to replace the current building, which has been closed because of mold. “That was very definitely a squeaker,” said Library Director Norma Patschke. “It really shows that every vote does count.”

San Antonio voters approved a $3.9-million bond issue for improvements to eight branches, a new partnership with the North East Independent School District for a joint public-school library at Roosevelt High School, and an architectural stabilization study for the Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum. The largest expenditure is $1.18 million for the Hausman Road Library, which is still in the planning stages for construction. In nearby Seguin, voters gave the nod to $150,000 in library system improvements.

In October, Orangefield voters passed an $11-million bond issue that includes funds for construction of a new junior-high school library and remodeling of the elementary school library.

In September, 81% of the voters in Cedar Hill authorized $4.6 million in support of acquiring land for and constructing a new building for the Zula Bryant Wylie Library.

Dallas residents in May overwhelmingly approved $55.5 million in library bonds that provide for the design and construction of four new and four replacement branches, land acquisition for a fifth new branch, and repairing a water infiltration problem in the Central Library.

UTAH. Salt Lake City voters nixed by a narrow margin a $5.4-million ballot measure to build new branches in Glendale and the west Capitol Hill area, but approved $10.2 million to remodel the library’s old main branch into an interactive science museum called “The Leonardo.”

In May, Tremonton voters rejected a $1.55-million bond measure to build a new library.

WASHINGTON. Benton City residents passed by more than 67% an $800,000 bond to build a new 5,600-square-foot facility. The Benton City branch of the Mid-Columbia Library was originally located in a resident’s home, then moved variously into a Red Cross hut, a small cabin, the chamber of commerce, and finally to the basement of city hall, where it has been since 1974.

Voters in Snohomish and Island counties narrowly passed a four-cent increase to the library tax levy, allowing the Sno-Isle Regional Library System in Marysville to make up an $800,000 budget shortfall and avoid closing all 20 of its branches for one week in 2004. The vote trailed in Snohomish, but enough Island County residents voted for the measure to pass districtwide. Sno-Isle had tried to get the measure passed in February but failed by about 2%.

La Conner voters approved by 60% a 20-cent tax increase to maintain services at the regional library.

In February, King County residents failed to approve $158 million in 20-year bonds to be used for the library system’s capital projects, including new libraries or expansions at the existing 42 branches. The proposition, the largest request in the library’s 60-year history, received only a 52% favorable vote out of a 60% supermajority required for passage.

WISCONSIN. In April, Delafield voters rejected a $3.47-million bond referendum that would have funded a new library. There had been no organized opposition until the previous week, when resident Jim Zahorik noticed duplicate signatures in an ad sponsored by the library Friends in support of the measure. He promptly created a Concerned Citizens of Delafield committee that leafleted the entire community. The library board had pledged to raise $2.5 million in private contributions to help the city pay off the bonds.

Voters also defeated an advisory referendum in April for up to $1.3 million in bonds to pay for a new library in Walworth. However, the village purchased land for the facility in October and the library board hopes to pay for a 15,000-square-foot with donations and grants.

WEST VIRGINIA. Logan County voters approved five-year levies to support libraries in Logan, Chapmanville, and Buffalo Creek, while Gilmer County residents approved funding for the library in Glenville. Other library levies passed in Pleasants County in September, in Buckhannon in June, and in Kingwood in February.

WYOMING. Voters in Laramie County approved $26.9 million to build a new central library in Cheyenne, make improvements to the Pine Bluffs branch, and replace a bookmobile.

—George M. Eberhart