Voters Buck Bleak Economic Outlook to Fund Libraries

Voters Buck Bleak Economic Outlook to Fund Libraries

Fears of an impending recession did not deter voters in many parts of the country from approving ballot initiatives to expand, renovate, or restore library services in their communities. And in several towns where apparently desperate officials asked the electorate to add money to general-fund coffers by zeroing out library support, residents’ answer was a resounding “no.”

Among the impressive victories was the passage of a $275-million bond issue to update the 33-branch Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System and build a new $170-million central library, with 50% of the funding to be raised from private donations. The pragmatic proposal, which garnered a 65% yes vote after two years of planning and 38 public meetings, contains a plan B: If the private sector fails to donate $85 million for a new central facility within five years, officials will instead refurbish the present downtown-Atlanta library building at a cost of $25 million, according to the Alpharetta-Roswell Revue and News.

“This is a tremendous day for the children of Fulton County, particularly those served by severely inadequate facilities or no facilities at all,” library Director John Szabo said in the November 8 Roswell Beacon, characterizing the yes vote as proof of “the value people place on their public libraries and their understanding of what libraries provide, especially in challenging economic times.”

To be conducted in two five-year phases, the plan calls for the replacement of eight facilities within the first two years at a cost of $133 million, the expansion of two more at a cost of some $33 million, and the $24-million renovation of the remaining 23 branches during Phase II.

Across the country, survival itself was at stake for Oregon’s Clackamas County Library District, which won approval by 61% of a permanent property tax of 39 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to fund services. “When I saw those first returns, I was like, wait a minute—the economy has tanked, people’s homes are being foreclosed, and people realized [the library] is essential,” marveled Karin Morey of the Oregon City Friends group in the November 6 Lake Oswego Review.

The victory was especially sweet to library boosters since it came in the wake of a one-time infusion of timber-payment funds from the federal government to tide over beleaguered communities while they develop alternate revenue sources. Library-district proponents had feared that area residents might mistakenly conclude that the payments had already stabilized library funding.

Voters in Springville, Utah, okayed a $9.8-million measure to build a new library across the street from the town’s current facility, which is “busting at the seams and can’t really provide the services we feel the citizens deserve,” city council member Dean Olsen said in the November 6 Salt Lake City Deseret News. “The people of a city have to get excited, especially if a solid core of them get off the couch and work hard for it,” editorialized the November 9 Springville Daily Herald about the measure’s success amid many no votes to Utah Valley ballot initiatives. Planners anticipate the new facility to be ready by the end of 2010.

Berkeley (Calif.) Public Library won approval of Measure FF to fund the renovation of four branch libraries by a 67.7% margin, which just squeaked past the two-thirds needed for passage. A 30-year property-tax hike that will average $27 a year per home, the measure will raise $26 million over 30 years to retrofit facilities so they comply with seismic regulations and are accessible to people with disabilities, the University of California at Berkeley’s Daily Californian reported November 5.

Staying alive

Keeping their doors open was the issue at stake for many other libraries awaiting election returns.

The economically battered Jackson (Mich.) District Library saw passage of a 0.4-mill property-tax hike for nine years that will ensure that all 13 branches will stay open. “There is no reason I can’t pay an extra $20 a year to help keep the library open for our kids,” Jackson resident Krista Divietri said in the November 5 Jackson Citizen Patriot of the initiative, which will add an estimated $1.76 million annually to the library budget. Had the levy failed, officials would have had to plug a $900,000 deficit by curtailing hours and possibly closing a branch. The increase is the first for the library district since its 1-mill rate was established 30 years ago, and follows the defeat last year of a 20-year, 0.8-mill levy that would have enabled the library district to expand.

Library boosters in Gilroy, California, celebrated the narrow win, by a super majority of 68.10%, of a $37-million bond to build a new facility to replace the 42-year-old, seismically unstable building that serves a town whose population has grown five-fold since it was erected. Had the measure failed, the library would have had to close altogether.

Library4Gilroy proponents canvassed for months to sway voters—mailing flyers, organizing phone banks, and going door-to-door. The group’s core message was that Gilroy residents had a responsibility to provide for future generations of library users, just as previous generations had provided for them. Detractors argued fiscal restraint and also reignited a years-old complaint among social conservatives in the area about the library’s unfiltered internet access, according to reports in the Gilroy Dispatch.

Thanks, but no thanks

Although a quarter-cent hike in the Fresno County (Calif.) Library sales tax seemed likely to gain the approval of some 62% of voters, it was falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass, library officials announced November 5. “The election results prove that many voters were in fact willing to make a further investment,” Fresno County Librarian Karen Bosch Cobb stated. “We appreciate their support during these tough economic times and the opportunity in this election to present our vision for expanded library services.” The library press release updated a November 5 Kingsburg Recorder report indicating that Measure L was destined for passage. [updated November 17, 2008]

Voters in Natrona County (Wyo.) Public Library defeated by a simple majority a sixth-cent sales tax for 27 months that would have raised $43.25 million to relocate and construct a facility three times the size of the present library, the Casper Star-Tribune reported November 7. “We welcome information on which areas of the initiative were of particular concern to voters and look forward to hearing from you,” read a concession notice on the NCPL website.

Residents of unincorporated Dodge County, Nebraska, along with those in the towns of Inglewood and Nickerson, resoundingly rejected a measure by 58%–42% that would have established a rural millage of $17 on a $100,000 home to fund full privileges at any of the county’s six public libraries. Keene Memorial Library in Fremont will continue to make nonresident library cards available for $35 a year to Dodge County residents without a local library, according to the November 5 Fremont Tribune.

In upstate Broome County, New York, the libraries in Johnson City and Endicott won an uphill battle when area residents approved annual funding of $1.54 million for the two facilities, up from the current level of $1.37 million, according to the November 5 Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin. The election came less than a month after a state appellate court ruled against county efforts to hold a referendum asking voters to eliminate library funding.

The law in New Jersey does allow for such a ballot question, however, prompting officials in Waterford and Jamesburg to ask citizens to defund their libraries, and transfer their borrowing privileges to libraries in nearby localities. Both communities opposed the measures, and voted instead to retain service within their town lines.

A similar proposal to dissolve the Boise Basin Library District in Idaho City was crushed by 81% of voters, the Boise Idaho Statesman reported November 5. The issue was placed on the ballot because the grassroots group Citizens for Reasonable Taxation had gathered the requisite 50 signatures on a petition to bring the measure before voters, believing that the county’s dedicated library taxes are unconstitutional because, CRT spokesperson Ann Heltsley told NBC-TV affiliate KTVB October 19, “People are being taxed on their property, on something they never had the opportunity to vote on.”

Posted on November 11, 2008; corrected November 17, 2008. Discuss.