June 2016 | Volume XXXIV. Issue 3 »

Voter Fever: Taxpayers Speak on Library Referenda

June 8, 2016
Kara Kohn, Plainfield Public Library District

Officials reported record voter turnout in Illinois for the March 15 primary election, with similar trends nationwide throughout this year’s primary season. “The numbers represent a 44.6 percent voter turnout. That’s much higher than the presidential primaries in 2012 and 2008, which had turnouts of 20.8 percent and 32 percent respectively,” according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. 

With high voter turnout, the six libraries in Illinois who had referenda questions on ballots for either bonds or taxes were ready to have their questions considered by the communities they serve. Although we wish we could report that all libraries had passed their referenda, the results were mixed—half passed, half failed. Here’s a quick overview of the referenda campaigns and more importantly, a look at what’s next on the horizon for these libraries.

THE YEAS HAVE IT

Alpha Park Public Library (Bartonville)
Type: Bond. Asked voters for $800,000 for capital repair and improvement projects.
Results: YES: 4,032 (62.75%); NO: 2,394 (37.25%)

What happened at Alpha Park is perhaps a bit of an anomaly. Very little flashy marketing, yet their referendum passed with a sizeable margin. While there were no yard signs or public meetings, there was coverage in local papers plus a larger newspaper that serves the Peoria area. In addition, the library advertised the names of over a hundred supporters accompanied by a cartoon featuring dialogue explaining why the funding was necessary.

When asked what contributed to the success of the campaign, Library Director John Richmond notes, “We are the closest thing to a true community center in southwest Peoria County. Our customer service, collection, and programming are what we’re known for, and we think people just liked us enough to vote yes.”

Another reason for their success could have to do with the price tag attached to their request, as the dollar amount fell under that million dollar mark, even though they needed more. “We’ll address some issues down the line, as our reserves build,” reports Richmond.

With the funding in place, plans include repair to outside and interior walls, doors, and windows; a complete rebuild of one parking lot; replacing exterior lighting; an update to the fire system; and the replacement of a furnace that is over thirty years old. Not glamorous, but vote-getting.

Maroa Public Library (Maroa)
Type: Bond. Increase corporate fund from 0.15% to 0.25%
Results: YES: 325 (51.59%): NO; 305 (48.41%)

Never in the library’s history have they asked taxpayers for more funding, but because of inflation, an increase was necessary to maintain existing services. Amber Scott, the library director, suggests that the success of their campaign is owed to transparency. “We were very open with the voters about what our needs were and what we needed from them. The ability to explain that this was the fund that covers things similar to what they have to pay for in their homes, and understanding that these costs go up, was helpful.”

Funding will be used to restore hours, books, materials, and programming budgets and should maintain services for years to come. “We cut over $20,000 out of our very small budget this fiscal year and all of our patrons are feeling that impact along with us,” explained Scott.

Stickney-Forest View Public Library District (Stickney)
Type: Bond. Approve a temporary tax increase to service a bond issue for an expansion.
Results: YES: 1,505 (67.82%); NO: 714 (32.18%)

For this library, taxpayers voted “yes” because they saw that the library had worked to reduce costs by writing grants, believed that it had been judicious with funds in the past, and the dollar amount was substantially less than if they were looking to construct a new building. The other half of the equation is believed to be staff increasing the value of the library in the hearts and minds of the community over the past several years. According to Library Director Heather Shlah, “In a town plagued with both digital and geographic divides, people really appreciate our top-flight library service.”

They will be able to update service desks, add quiet study rooms, new furniture, an art media lab for teens, a media box dispensary and vending, and reconfigure the youth area. Exterior space will also get a makeover with sheltered seating and bicycle stands, and the picnic and STEM garden area will be accessible to the public. Finally, the building will be modernized with high efficiency solar shades and new ADA-compliant ramps. 

Despite the successful outcome, Shlah admits the referendum process can be stressful. “At times, the experience was stressful and it required some really long hours that took time away from family and life in general—oddly enough, I even felt at some points that I was neglecting the library and my staff. That having been said, I think that it is really important to develop a community engagement team to assist with the public relations end of things. The experience was positive and professionally formative for me, and I am so grateful to our library community for valuing library service and supporting progress.”

THE NAYSAYERS

North Riverside Public Library (North Riverside)
Type: Tax. Redirect expiring building bonds to an operating fund. This redirection would allow for continuous improvements to library technology, services, programs, and facilities.
Results: YES: 849 (43.81%); NO: 1,089 (56.19%)

After a study by an architectural firm, it was evident that maintenance was required to keep the building operating over the next twenty years. “Our residents need a well-maintained library building that meets health and safety requirements, as well as updated technology, infrastructure, and well-designed spaces for programs and services. In the approaching decades, the building will age, and in order to preserve the community’s investment in the library, it is necessary to begin planning and budgeting for these inevitable repairs and replacements,” maintains Library Director Ted Bodewes.

Staff and patrons won’t notice an immediate effect of the failed referendum, but in planning for the upcoming fiscal year, operational costs will have a heavy impact on budgeting. Bodewes says, “Without these funds, the sense of pressure is growing for our organization and we are worried what the ultimate impact on our ability to provide innovative and crucial services to our community will be. Any expansion to services or materials will be modest until we feel that there is a sufficient reserve in place for the building.”

The library is considering another stab at a referendum with the next one being a bond, while also looking for alternative sources of revenue such as grants and fund-raising. The biggest takeaway for North Riverside is that a more comprehensive campaign of voter education will be necessary in the future. Voters were not prepared to make an appropriate decision when they arrived at the polls, as many were seeing the library’s proposal for the first time.

Plainfield Public Library District (Plainfield)
Type: Bond. Authorize $39 million building bond that would build the new library, including property acquisition, equipment, library materials, and furnishings.
Results: YES: 8,233 (44.23%); NO: 10,382 (55.77%) Type: Tax. Increase the limiting rate by 19% to operate the new library.
Results: YES: 5,656 (30.73%); NO: 12,752 (69.27%)

What happened in Plainfield made national headlines, as the library was targeted by Americans For Prosperity (AFP), a super PAC whose website claims it is “a grassroots organization with over 2.8 million activists nationwide who advocate and promote limited government, lower taxes, and more freedom,” and who were very vocal in their opposition to Plainfield’s expansion plans. AFP’s tactics included robocalls and mailers sent right before the election. “For many undecided voters, that mailer or phone call was the last thing they saw or heard about the referendum before voting. I think that was a factor,” contends Library Director Julie Milavec.

The library’s immediate next steps following the defeat were to poll stakeholders and the public, asking three vital questions to guide their future plans: what did you hear from others about why the referenda failed, why do you think it failed, and what would make a difference. At the April library board meeting, it was decided to revise the plan in response to the polling feedback by reducing the dollar amount, using the existing building with an addition, and lowering the overall property tax impact with a target referendum date of April 2017.

Without the funding through a successful referendum, cuts are planned that will directly affect both patrons and staff, including reductions in programs and services, eliminating Sunday hours starting in the fall, and offering fewer programs and events. All budget lines are frozen or reduced. The reduction in operating expenditures will be used for capital repairs and replacements.

While this library has many challenges to face up ahead, especially in regard to dealing with an aging facility that needs major repairs and is undersized for the community, the attitude is to carry on with their customer service-focused philosophy. “The library will continue to provide the best possible library service to our residents within the means provided to the library district,” says Milavec.

White Oak Library District (Crest Hill, Lockport, Romeoville)
Type: Tax. Increase limiting rate by just over 3 cents per
$100 of assessed property valuation.
Results: YES: 5,631 (34.61%); NO: 10,639 (65.39%)

If passed, the new tax rate would have cost residents $10.17 more per $100,000 of their home value per year. With those additional funds, the library proposed to increase hours, increase the size and scope of outreach efforts, and both build and staff a digital media lab.

As to why the referendum failed, Library Director Scott Pointon brings up a valid argument. “People are fed up with property taxes. They also feel that there isn’t much they can do politically or practically about the staggering cost of the school, municipal, and fire district taxes. Therefore, the taxpayers are left with very few options if they want to beat up on a taxing body and vent their high tax bill frustration. We are an easy target for all of that taxpayer anger.”

In the short term, White Oak’s Board of Trustees is soliciting feedback as to why many of the library’s supporters and regular users voted no, and they will make a final decision this summer on where they will go moving forward. According to Pointon, “We plan to keep after this until our district is funded at a level that will allow us to provide the scope and quality of services that our public deserves.”

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