Californians love their libraries so much they don’t think libraries are part of government.
It’s a love so deep Californians are willing to pay higher taxes to improve their libraries. In Northern California, five ballot measures were approved in November that will invest tens of millions of dollars in local public libraries.
Library-specific tax increases, as opposed to a general local tax increase, don’t win unless two-thirds of voters say “yes,” which means to win there has to be a whole lotta bipartisan love goin’ on.
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Less than two years after their city emerged from bankruptcy protection, nearly 74 percent of Stockton voters said “yes” to Measure M, a 16-year, $9 million-per-year, one-quarter percent sales tax increase to “enhance Stockton’s library and recreation services, including safe after-school and summer programs for children and teens, homework centers, children’s story times, increased public computer access/wireless connectivity and enhanced evening and weekend hours at libraries and recreation centers.”
Because the libraries of Stockton and San Joaquin County are linked, all benefit.
By a 71 percent to 29 percent margin, Sonoma County voters approved Measure Y, a one-eighth percent sales tax increase aimed at “maintaining children’s/teen books, materials/services; providing educational services, including homework help/computer labs; expanding senior/disabled services; keeping qualified librarians; (and) restoring library hours.” The tax is expected to generate $12 million annually for 10 years.
Nevada County’s residents continued a quarter-cent sales tax earmarked for libraries by a similarly wide spread.
And while proponents of general tax hikes only had to secure a majority vote for passage, they were successful in a number of cities – by sizable margins – when the specific benefits to libraries were highlighted.
In the East Bay, for example, proponents of a one-half percent general tax increase in Pleasant Hill – Measure K – stressed that funds would be used primarily for “repairing neighborhood and city streets” and “replacing the aging library with a 21st century facility, including space for after-school homework and tutoring.” Sixty-seven percent of voters approved the measure.
Loomis voters, whose Placer County branch library is slated for closure, followed a similar course. They passed Measure F, a quarter-cent general city sales tax increase, alongside Measure G, which asked residents if keeping the library open should get first call on the new funds. Both measures won by a nearly two-thirds to one-third margin.
Even with these investments, libraries across the state have significantly higher needs in order to meet the need of California’s 21st century communities. The California Library Association recently estimated that the state’s 1,100 public libraries need more than $4 billion to cover renovations and replacement.
In November, some Northern California jurisdictions couldn’t overcome the two-thirds vote threshold of a special tax. Pacifica failed in its effort to finance construction of new $33.5 million library and El Cerrito’s Measure B, a $30 million library bond, stalled at just under 63 percent of the vote.
An effective way to help tackle the state’s ever-growing local facility needs is to give local governments – and voters – more power to address them. One simple approach is to apply the 55 percent approval threshold for local school projects to libraries. This gives communities more control without increasing the state’s liabilities or “wall of debt.”
The idea isn’t new. It has surfaced many times in the Legislature over the past 30 years. As a new Legislature begins its work this month, there will be another opportunity to help communities better chart their own destiny – and increase investment in libraries.
Greg Lucas is the California state librarian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.