On March 15, the Plainfield Public Library District (PPLD), IL, failed to pass two referenda—a bond measure and a property tax increase—needed to raise money for a new library building. The ticket fell victim to a Vote No campaign consisting of mailers and last-minute robocalls funded by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a right-wing super PAC (political action committee) with an antitax agenda. Behind AFP lies tens of thousands of dollars from the billionaire Koch brothers, lifelong Libertarians who heavily oppose taxes, social services, and industrial oversight, among other government functions.
The referenda proposed a $39 million, 20-year building bond, to be used toward the purchase and construction of a new building to replace the existing 26-year-old library, which has become inadequate to serve the community’s needs. Operations would have been funded by a 19 percent increase to the library’s limiting tax rate of 0.0390, just under four cents per $100 of home value, to reach a total rate of 0.2442. The estimated total cost to an average home in the district would have been $14.91 per month, or just under $180 per year, for a $300,000 home—approximately $12 per month for the bond and $3 per month for operations.
GETTING OUT THE VOTE
“Basically the library board did everything right,” PPLD director Julie Milavec told LJ. “They were as transparent as they could possibly be.” The last time a library referendum made it to the ballot in 2009, she said, was “a perfect storm of negative economic news,” and when asked about a possible referendum on the 2011 ballot, Plainfield residents said they weren’t yet ready. So PPLD began work on a long-range plan, documenting everything on the library’s website. “The building and expansion planning page is a step-by-step, every month [record of] what was going on,” said Milavec. “The summaries, the presentations, the feedback, everything was posted there.”
In addition to putting out information on social and news media, PPLD conducted 22 public meetings, online feedback surveys, and a telephone survey between April and December 2015, at which point the board voted to put the referenda on the ballot. The library engaged EveryLibrary, a nonprofit organization that advocates for local library ballot initiatives, initially to help with the community engagement aspects of the informational campaign and then, as the ballot date neared, to work with the Vote Yes committee.
The campaign progressed well, EveryLibrary founder and executive director John Chrastka (a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker and LJ columnist) reported, even with the appearance of a local Vote No campaign—”the usual suspects,” said Chrastka; “they turn up for everything that they can say no to.” For this campaign, they launched a Facebook page titled “Vote No, Plainfield Library Truth” and a website, Librarytruth.com, which stated in its headline “A No Vote, is a Vote for our children and our community!” The site included a description of the library as being in “direct program competition” with the YMCA and Plainfield Park District. Librarytruth operatives also handed out printed materials, leaving fliers in mailboxes and under windshield wipers.
These were standard tactics, Chrastka told LJ. “It makes, actually, for a more robust community dialog. We’re not eager for opposition, but you address it. You look at the legitimate points within it and you answer those, and then you look at the points that are ideologically driven and you try and call them out on it.” In fact, the Vote No committee ran into trouble with the Illinois Board of Elections owing to its lack of disclosure on any of the materials it handed out, as well as its custom of putting signs in mailboxes without a permit from the village. (The address listed on the site’s “Contact Us” page is that of the library.)
On the other hand, said Milavec, “Our Vote Yes committee was very diligent in…making sure that they dotted all the I’s, crossed all the T’s, filed everything on time, exactly as they were supposed to do.” The committee sent out informational mailings to all the homes in the district, held four drop-in Q&A sessions for members of the public, and attended as many group meetings as possible: “PTAs, homeowners’ associations, the Rotary Club…everywhere we could think of to be to be able to answer people’s questions.”
Then the week before the election, robocalls from the AFP Illinois chapter began rolling in to residents of PPLD. The calls urged residents to vote no because “people are already taxed enough,” stating that the bonds would cost the owner of a $300,000 home more than $2,600—“taking the entire 20-year life of a bond and pretending that it’s going to be at the beginning,” noted Chrastka.
The bond proposal was voted down 10,237 to 8,152; the limiting tax rate 12,593 to 5,592. “Did AFP lose the election for us in Plainfield? It didn’t help, that’s for sure,” Chrastka told LJ. “It caused more confusion in the electorate. That’s what robocalls are designed to do.”
AFP VS. LIBRARIES
Charles and David Koch own controlling interest in the Wichita, KS–based Koch Industries, the second largest privately held company in the United States, and have used their $35 billion family fortune to support a number of conservative causes and candidates. David Koch formed AFP in 2004, and the organization has worked closely with the conservative Tea Party since its inception, using funds from the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a public charity, to oppose initiatives such as global warming regulation and the Affordable Care Act.
In the Plainfield Vote No campaign, AFP targeted the size of the referendum, as well as the inclusion, on the library’s plans, of a staff shower. The shower, said Milavec, was a “placeholder” while the library decided whether to go for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, as a shower adds LEED points for sustainability. As for the price tag of the proposed new library, she said, “We did our best to make sure that it was an affordable plan,” given that the new library would occupy 72,000 square feet of space on an expanded site downtown.
In addition to the mailings and robocalls, comments on social media grew increasingly personal, Milavec said. “It was an ugly thing…. There were a lot of anonymous attacks; there were a lot of personal attacks. I’ve had everything from my salary to the car I drive up on social media and questioned. I’ve had people calling for me to be fired, saying that I am incompetent, that this is all for my glory.” Milavec, who has served as PPLD director for the last 15 years, noted that her salary and contract are posted publicly on the library website.
This year, AFP’s Illinois chapter has opposed 28 ballot measures across the state, including the PPLD referendum. The PPLD Vote No campaign was “pretty much boilerplate AFP, when they target any other part of civil society,” explained Chrastka. “The problem there is that they started targeting libraries.”
Chrastka believes that this is the first library-specific ballot measure that AFP has gone after. However, the super PAC has also recently thrown its weight behind Kansas House Bill 2719, a measure that would have potentially removed the taxing authority of the state library board and returned local library boards to city or county administration, similar to Legislative Bill 969 recently under consideration in Nebraska. The Kansas chapter of AFP sent its lobbyist to a March 14 hearing, coming out in favor of the measure, but at the House Taxation Committee meeting the following week, the section of the bill potentially impacting libraries was removed.
Chraskta remains unsure of why AFP singled out Plainfield. The Illinois chapter has an office in nearby Naperville, and at least one of the citizens who mounted the local Vote No campaign has political connections to the Tea Party in Plainfield’s Will County, but he did not want to speculate beyond that. “Plainfield is overall a very conservative town, particularly fiscally conservative,” noted Milavec.
After the referenda’s defeat, a board meeting was held on March 16 to determine how to proceed. The next step, Milavec told LJ, will be a listening tour for the trustees, who will go out into the community and “take the temperature of our various stakeholders and stakeholder groups…to ask questions: Why did you hear that it failed? Why do you think it failed? And what would make a difference?” The library will also hold open houses during National Library Week. Responses will be compiled and presented at the April board meeting.
There is an opportunity to put a referendum on the November ballot, but the plan would need to be in place by August 22, so the timeline would be tight. An April 2017 ballot would give the library a year to go through a new planning process, but the option to purchase the downtown property PPLD has its eye on will expire December 31, 2016.
The current 27,000 square foot building was built in 1990 to serve a population of some 14,000 residents, now grown to 75,000. As well as being short on space for both users and staff—“I have work stations so tight that if two people are working at the same time, if one of them wants to push their chair out and get up they have to warn the other person,” said Milavec—material space and outlets are inadequate, the lighting isn’t conducive to viewing screens, and the library is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Staying in the building and bringing it up to code and 21st-century service would not be much cheaper than a new building—estimates are still in the $10 million range.
If no referendum is passed, pointed out Milavec, PPLD’s Plan B would require taking 20 percent out of the PPLD’s operating expenditures. “So if I cut everything but staff and materials I’d have two percent of my annual operating budget for everything else.” The library, she noted, has never passed an operating tax rate increase in its history. But “if we put something back on the ballot, we’re going to have to know that AFP is going to send a mailing that’s going to hit on Election Day morning like they did for this.”
The problem, said Chrastka, is not only that extremely well-funded organizations like AFP can easily outspend smaller groups such as EveryLibrary. “Libraries are potentially a soft target for ideological and agenda-driven organizations like AFP and the Koch Brothers,” he explained. With the negative campaigns, “There’s an erosion, not of good will, but of confidence among the electorate. People [then] skip the measure instead of voting yes…. If you look at the voter behavior statistics. I’m concerned that a megaPAC that’s funded by some of the wealthiest people in the world is turning any of its sights, and applying any of its money [against libraries].”
Added Milavec, “We’ve tried to do everything right to this point, and we will continue to do the best we can with what we’ve got, and to make a difference in our community every day. I keep telling my staff: we’re actually no worse off today than we were yesterday, and we will continue to move forward. We’ll find a way.”