2013 Library Elections Deep Dive

Nationwide, at least $230 million in tax revenue and bonds was at stake for libraries on November 2013's Election Day.  

At EveryLibrary, we think it is important to examine all library ballot measures, even the ones we are not directly involved in. We believe there is something to be learned from the big picture that can help us strategize for libraries on the local level.

On last week’s Election Day, over 530,000 Americans cast a vote for – or against – libraries in elections all across the county.  From the 47 voters in Athens, New York who punched a ballot about the D.R. Everts Library budget to the almost 160,000 people in Hamilton County, Ohio who weighed in on renewing their Levy, libraries and their advocates have spoken with mixed success to voters.  EveryLibrary has identified 69 local library elections that took place from January 1st through November 5th, 2013 where voters were asked for new or renewed funding, or new authority as a district library. Libraries, and the communities they serve, won in 41 of these elections.  In 19, voters said No to new funding for the library*.

Nationwide, at least $230,000,000 in tax revenue and bonds was at stake for libraries.  In most cases around the country, library revenue is based on property taxes. The name for these taxes varies around the country, but whether it was called a Levy, a Millage, a Parcel Tax, or something else, these taxes are the local community’s support for a key educational and cultural institution in their city, town, or county. When library taxes are tied to sales, use, or another special tax, the question before the voters is the same: do you know enough about a modern library to value it, and to vote yes for it?

Of the 69 elections, at least 13 were bond measures intended to remodel, renovate, or build new buildings.  These 13 bond measures had a pass/fail rate of 53% to 46%.  At stake was the lion’s share of this year’s funding measures, with $155,000,000 before the voters. The seven measures which passed are valued at $124,000,000 and the six that failed are at $31,000,000 in bonds.  When looking at this in detail, though, it isn’t a simple balance sheet.  The six that failed include Cornelius, OR and a $2.4 mil public-funding contribution to an existing building grant and capital campaign worth $6.4 mil that would have built a mixed-use library/senior housing site along their main street.  On the Illinois side of the Quad Cities, 56% of voters said No to $3 mil in bonds to upgrade the facilities, collections, and connectivity at the Mercer Carnegie Library.   As an industry, libraries need to look at the well-deserved victories in Richland Co., SC ($59 mil), Round Rock, TX ($23 mil), and Tolland, CT ($2.6 mil) for inspiration and GOTV guidance, but not with an “on balance, we won there” approach.

In the 37 levies, millages, and other funding measures that were not construction bonds, 30 passed and 7 failed with at least 3 results still pending publication.  In building this report we are relying on figures posted by either the libraries themselves, local media, or the ballot language itself in determining the revenue at stake.  Of these 37 elections, only 30 have readily identifiable single- or multi-year revenue projections attached to the reports.  Still, well over $71 mil in library funding was at stake in either new or renewed levies in 2013.  By way of perspective, the entire federal appropriation for libraries in $147 million and that is intended to support over 9,000 public libraries through 51 state library agency grant programs.   Of the winning levies, at least $67.6 million was secured for library operations, collections, programs and staffing across these 30 races. For the failed levies, at least $4 million was voted down.  These wins include renewals or establishments of the basic, core funding for libraries including large systems like Santa Clara County (CA) who secured a 20-year renewal at $6.2 million a year for their 7 community libraries, and small single-site libraries like the Superior (MI) District Library and their 2-year, $400,000 annual operations budget.  But like Superior which needed passage in order to continue operations as a system, library levies that fail with voters can cost the community hours, much-needed services, access to collections and the internet, and trained librarians.  On the national balance sheet, winning 30 and losing 7 levies may not seem bad. But for communities like Kalkaska, MI, where the library levy was defeated in May or Shorewood-Troy, IL. who lost their levy in April, plans about the future of their libraries needs to be cut back, curtailed, or placed on hold until some other funding contingency is found.

We are publishing the full list of 2013 Library Elections along with this report and analysis for your use.  As we have stated earlier, reporting from local jurisdictions, Clerks of Elections, and sometimes the libraries themselves are at times spotty.  If you have data points to add to this 2013 report, please email them to EveryLibrary.  When using the data, please credit EveryLibrary 2013 www.everylibrary.org.  Contributions from donors made this report possible.  Please consider adding your financial support to our work.

*As of this writing, vote reports are still pending in 9 of these jurisdictions.