February 16, 2018

Library Referenda 2011: Voters Keep the Doors Open

Beth Dempsey

The referenda landscape of 2011 was punctuated by strong voter support to keep library doors open—but little more. Libraries took a cue from three long years of budget cuts, a struggling economy, dwindling consumer confidence, and weary taxpayers and ventured out to voters with markedly restrained requests.

At a cursory glance the numbers for operating referenda seem positive. Fully 88 percent of libraries that asked their communities to fund them were rewarded with a “yes.” In fact, the 2011 passage rate for operating referenda hit a ten-year high.

Looking deeper at the numbers, however, provides sobering context. Voters approved smaller amounts last year than in years 2002 through 2008 and even 2010. In 2011, the average operating referenda was under $900,000. Remove a standout $50 million vote in Los Angeles, and the average drops to under $800,000. Consider that next to the ten-year high, which occurred in 2008, when the average referendum was valued at more than $4 ­million.

Though there’s no arguing that voters sided with libraries in 2011, this support indicates that libraries are accurately assessing taxpayers’ limits. The results are based on 115 responses to an LJ survey.

Renewals of existing funding fared best, passing at a stunning rate of 94 percent. Requests for new funding, not quite the shoo-in for the win, passed 80 percent of the time. The requests for new taxes and levies were needed to fill shortfalls from debilitating state budget cuts or revenue losses from declining housing values. Often, libraries reported turning to voters as a last resort to keep service going after all belt-tightening efforts were deployed.

Impact of Los Angeles

While it might seem as though 2011 should have been a snoozer, there was plenty of drama. Los Angeles Public Library’s $50 million win was driven by voters in spite of some powerful opposition—including that from the Los Angeles Times editorial board. It reverses deep budget cuts and restores a variety of services at 73 branches across the city.

Los Angeles wasn’t the only California lovefest. Eighty-five percent of voters approved the measure for the Riverside Public Library over the next ten years. Guts were on display at Sabine Parish Library in Louisiana, where Director Rebecca Morris went toe-to-toe with a curmudgeonly local radio station owner who used the power of the airwaves to spread false information about the library’s ballot initiative. She challenged these rumors on his own morning talk show, delivered the library’s message, and chalked up a decisive victory at the polls. In the nail-biters category, it’s hard to top the Albion Public Library in Iowa, which won by a single vote.

Speaking of nail-biters, Michigan’s Troy Public Library, which endured the threat of closure for months after a failed funding initiative in 2010, came back a winner in 2011. Citizens rallied behind the library and fought for stable funding via a levy that will keep it operating for at least five years.

Operating funding defeats are especially painful, and 2011’s were no exception. Colorado’s battle-scarred Aurora City Library District went back to voters, hoping to reopen Mission Viejo library district, which was closed in 2009 along with four district libraries after funding was voted down. Again, voters sided with a well-organized and vocal antitax group, and the measure was defeated.

Building initiatives

If building initiatives are the acid test of support, the battle for dollars for public libraries continues to be uphill. Last year marked a ten-year low in passage rates—just 44 percent—a double-digit drop from 2010’s 54 percent win rate.

The total awarded to libraries for building and renovation (that was reported to LJ) was just $54 million, with nearly two-thirds of those funds earned from just two votes. Most library wins were modest, as low as $200,000. Further, the number of ballot initiatives nationwide was dismal—just 18 were reported to LJ.

While the small number of votes makes the data useful for direction only, the impact of a weakened economy is clear. In 2011, even tiny requests had trouble mustering required support. To wit, among the losses is a stinger in Idaho, where the Wilder Free Library will continue to serve its patrons from a 1400 square foot mobile home, rather than using just $56,000 to renovate the area’s former fire station for a more spacious and superior space.

There are notable exceptions to the dreary building landscape. Montana’s Parmly Billings Library will finance a new 66,000 square foot building with a voter-approved bond of more than $16 million. And the Ames Public Library, IA, passed an $18 million referendum—the largest reported to LJ in 2011—to renovate its main Carnegie structure. Voters supported the library to the tune of 76 percent, making it the only supermajority building success of the year. The library attributes its victory to the formation of a campaign committee that included members of diverse political backgrounds, setting the stage for citywide support.

Organize instead of agonize

Ames Public Library’s reliance on a campaign committee was part of a larger 2011 trend to organize help in persuading tentative voters to support library ballot proposals. Three-quarters of building initiatives and two-thirds of those seeking operating funding had committees and PACs to back them. In both cases, there was a direct relationship between financial investment by the committee and the outcome of the vote: winning campaigns spent more.

Though there were some campaigns that topped $30,000, deep pockets were not table-stakes in most communities. The median spend on a successful building campaign was under $8000—four times as much as the median spend on a failed campaign. The median spend on a successful operating referenda was about $4000.

The extra outlay is likely a sign of the activity of the committees—more feet on the ground means more yard signs, more buttons, more flyers, more events. Translated: a busy committee was more likely to return a win. For example, with the backing of an active campaign committee, Ohio’s Reed Memorial Library elevated the visibility of its much-needed and ultimately successful levy. “The committee members worked hard at many public speaking events. [They] divided up the tasks and each took on large responsibilities,” says Director Kathleen Owens. “No matter where I went in town, people talked to me about the levy.”

Similarly, Riverside Public Library, CA, attributes its remarkable passage rate to the dedication of a committee constructed of library stakeholders from its foundation, Friends, board, and community. Director Tonya Kennon reports they “phone banked, marketed, and financially supported the campaign. The team spoke to community groups and service clubs throughout the city, relaying the facts and importance of Measure I.”

Michigan’s Genessee District Library, which serves a community devastated by the downturn in the domestic auto industry, organized its Friends groups into a campaign committee and created phone chains to raise awareness about the library’s declining revenues. At election time, the phone chains reminded voters to get to the polls—­always critical in local races.

The Lied Public Library in Iowa put so many volunteers to work that Director Andrew Hoppmann feels their message was personally delivered to nearly every voter. “The supporters met with various outside groups and organizations and provided weekly letters to the editor prior to the vote,” he says. It really seemed to be a one-on-one campaign, where supporters advocated the library’s role and value to everyone in the community. The vote for the library passed by almost 70 percent.”

The tough get on message

With committees come challenges in ensuring the library’s message is clear. Multiple speakers can lead to message drift, weakening the case being made to voters. A variety of winning libraries pointed to the pivotal role of committee leadership in keeping everyone on track. At Mendocino County Library in California, a hired campaign manager paid for himself by enabling a laserlike focus on key messages. “He kept the campaign strong, on message, and organized. His organizational skills contributed to raising around $70,000 in donations and funds, a record for the county in local elections,” says county librarian Melanie Lightbody.

At Avon Lake Public Library in Ohio, the movement to get everyone on message started with those who would be speaking most often about the library—its staff. Library employees were armed with a concise elevator speech that could be delivered simply in just about any back-and-forth with a patron. The message was supported with superior customer service (that extended well beyond the campaign season, noted ­Director Mary Crehore).

It bears repeating from past referenda summaries that messages that persuade are not necessarily library messages but are always voter messages. Consider Oregon’s Baker County Library District. Its operations levy was renewed amid strong anti–tax increase sentiment that defeated a school levy on the same ballot. The main message of the library’s campaign spoke directly to local concerns: “Voting ‘yes’ won’t raise taxes.” Supported with an active campaign that—among other things—enlisted Boy Scouts to distribute leaflets door-to-door, the library earned an endorsement from the local newspaper that repeated its key messages and declared the renewal “a bargain.” The library won by more than 65 ­percent.

Libraries that were asking for more—new taxes, bond measures, new levies—often connected with voters through messages about the library’s ability to improve local quality of life. The Whitehall Township Public Library in Pennsylvania addressed both users and nonusers with a message that connected effective library service to property values: good libraries make attractive communities, and attractive communities command higher home prices.

Ohio’s Swanton Local School District Public Library shared a similar message with the local business community on the library’s particular value during the area’s tough economic times. “We did not shorten library hours or lay off staff when funding was tight,” says Director Linda Slaninka. “We never used threats of closures or shortened hours to promote our goals. We remained open regular hours seven days a week. Public feedback indicates that [meeting] this challenge seemed to be the key to passage of both levies.”

Swanton’s neighbor Sabina Public Library enabled voters to see the importance of the library through the eyes of local kids. Its campaign volunteers included its school-age patrons, who wrote letters to the editor, which the library reports had a particularly powerful impact.

Acclaimed Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh also took an inclusive approach with its “Our Library, Our Future” campaign. This “we’re all in this together” community-based initiative was overwhelmingly approved, and the library will receive new funding from a special tax on property.

A friend in Facebook

The use of social media to spread the library message rose significantly in 2011. About 65 percent of libraries added social networking—primarily via Facebook—to their communication plans, but its power to effect a win is unproven. Campaigns without Twitter or Facebook were just as likely to win at the polls as those that engaged these vehicles. However, with the rapid spread of social media into all demographics, that is unlikely to hold for long.

With or without hard evidence of its ability to drive a win, social media has the undeniable allure of reaching large groups simultaneously and repeatedly. For example, with Michigan’s Genesee District Library’s reported Facebook participant base of 5000, its messages can be crafted and distributed to this significant population within minutes. Twitter is an ideal tool for reminding supporters to vote.

If it sounds expensive or difficult to launch a social media campaign, take a tip from the Mendocino County Library committee. It found an ideal resource in a talented, local college student who constructed the campaign’s web and social media presence. “Her skills provided a professional presence,” says county librarian Lightbody.

Libraries love to be loved

All in all, 2011 was full of successes that prove voters respect the service they get from the library. Yes, the amount funded is smaller than in years past, there are fewer exciting new building projects, and the glory days of sweeping citywide renovations are a memory, but voters listened to libraries’ needs and overwhelmingly chose to keep them in business.

Throughout the 115-plus reports from libraries to LJ, there’s a remarkably optimistic tone and gratitude to the campaign teams, to the volunteers who stepped up to fight for the library, and to the voters who responded.

And though voter initiatives are exhausting, they can reap rewards beyond funding. The Hazel Park Memorial Library in Michigan was in a desperate financial situation as a result of plummeting property values and a decline in the city’s population. A newly passed millage provides just enough revenue for the library to maintain its staff, hours, and services—nothing more. The library found, however, that the campaign to support the library “served as an excellent vehicle for marketing the services we offer to the community,” says Director Jessica Keyser.

“We received wonderful media coverage and had lots of volunteers of all ages. The millage passed by 72 percent owing to the successful word-of-mouth campaign and media coverage,” she adds. “People still come in and congratulate us, and the positive outcome has given us a major boost in morale.”

Beth Dempsey is Principal of Dempsey Communications Group, a firm specializing in communications for knowledge organizations.