Library tax increase proposal goes before citizens on Nov. 8 ballot

Citizens ended up with the right to decide on Mid-Continent Public Library’s proposed tax increase but must decide MCPL’s true revenue needs in the upcoming Nov. 8 election.

The library system’s board voted to place the initiative on the ballot during a meeting in late June. As the summer wore on, local elected officials questioned the validity of the tax increase and attempted to avoid allowing the decision to reach the voters.

A ruling from the Platte County 6th District Circuit Court in late August led the Platte County Commission to vote 2-1 — presiding commissioner Ron Schieber the dissenting voice — to approve the ballot language. Now, citizens in Platte and Clay and parts of Jackson County will have the opportunity to decide if the tax levy will go up from 32 cents to 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation in what MCPL calls its first proposed increase in more than three decades.
MCPL officials have acknowledged the difficult climate for receiving voter approval, a matter likely not helped by the short legal battle over the summer.

“We shouldn’t pick an amount based on what would be most politically viable,” said Jim Staley, director of community relations and planning for Mid-Continent. “We should pick the amount that allows the library to complete the plans and serve our communities in the way our board and our staff understand that we need to be able to serve the community. We didn’t want to do more; we didn’t want to do less.

“I think the case it’s incumbent upon us to make is that the 8 cents is needed. And we’re not asking for a penny more than we need; we’re not asking for a penny less than we need.”

If approved, the increased tax levy would add an estimated $9.5 million to MCPL’s current annual operating budget of $42 million.

At a June 21 meeting, the library system’s board voted 9-1 in favor of seeking the increase with one member absent. Board members Joycelyn Tucker Burgo, Jeff Vandel, Pamela Durata, John Laney, Jane Rinehart, Steve Roling, Brent Schondelmeyer, Marvin Weishaar and Michelle Wycoff voted in favor putting the proposal in front of voters. 

The lone dissenting vote came from Nancy Kraus Womack of Platte County.

Known as Proposition L, the ballot will ask voters: “For the purpose of renovating and replacing aging library facilities, enhancing spaces and programming for children and adults, expanding services and collections to serve public demand, and for the general operation of public libraries, shall there be an eight cent tax increase of the thirty-two cent tax per hundred dollars assessed valuation for Consolidated Library District #3, known as the Mid-Continent Public Library?”

Plans for the increased funding include the construction of six new buildings and renovation of 28 others, expansion of access to library services and increased investment of materials — physical and digital books and other multimedia items.

The largest geographical library system in the 48 contiguous states, Mid-Continent currently includes 31 branches located throughout Platte, Clay and Jackson counties. Eight of those lie in Platte County, and the building work would touch each of those.

Branches in Camden Point, Dearborn, Edgerton, Parkville and Weston would receive minor renovations including windows, painting, carpet and amenities. Platte City’s location, built in 2006, would receive minor upgrades.

Riverside would have the chance to add new collaborative spaces in addition to the other upgrades, while the Boardwalk Branch would be replaced with a destination library, similar to Platte City’s.

The renovations would help provide more basic upgrades like increased power outlets, usable community space and purchase of materials on multiple formats — books, digital books and books on tape. Approval of the levy proposal would allow Mid-Continent to invest about $86 million in its buildings to update and prepare for projected population growth and make them more modern.

“People do have that conception when they haven’t been into a library for a while,” Staley said, “you know, ‘Isn’t a library a thing of the past?’ But when they have that opinion, generally, the thing they think about is books. One of the things we say a lot is libraries have never really been about books. Libraries have been about the ideas and the information and all of that that is contained inside of the books.

“There’s just a lot more to what library service means than just the books. Once people can get past that idea, that it’s about more than the things sitting on the shelves and more about the ability access and learn and connect with their communities, that starts to reshape people’s perceptions.”

The Platte County Commission not only questioned the validity of using the revenue to build new facilities but also worried about the lack of a sunset clause.

With a deadline approaching to get the item on the ballot, the commission and MCPL officials filed dueling actions in court in late August. Judge Thomas Fincham issued his ruling on Monday, Aug. 29, just in front of the deadline for the commission to approve or reject the matter.

MCPL officials acknowledged the difference in opinion with elected officials but were happy with the judgement avoiding an injunction.

“The obligation of the Platte County Commission to place Proposition L, the tax levy resolution submitted to the Commission by the Library’s Board of Trusteees, on the ballot for the November 8, 2016 general election is mandatory and ministerial, and it is not within the discretion of the Commission to refuse to place the proposition on the ballot for that election,” Fincham wrote in his ruling.

Schieber also voiced his opposition to a “forever tax” with no sunset clause, which could allow future voters an opportunity whether or not to approve additional funding down the road. He pointed at Platte County’s parks and recreation and roads taxes, both of which were approved by voters for one 10-year run and then reapproved for another, as examples of better public policy.

“What you’ve done is take away the opportunity for good policy,” Schieber said to MCPL representatives in the audience. “That is just poor public policy, period.”

Other citizens have questioned the need for all of the additional revenue and wondered if MCPL had truly taken steps to operate within its budget rather than go to the taxpayer for more money. In addition, opposition has noted a 25 percent increase in the levy and wondered how much research went into determining that figure.

MCPL notes that voters previously approved an even larger levy for the system.

The last tax increase for MCPL came back in 1983 when voters approved a 45-cent levy. However, state law forced rollbacks, and in 1991, voters combined the operating and building levy at 32 cents, which has remained the constant rate for the past 25 years. Many of the branches were built in the wake of the 1983 increase but have become more difficult to operate with the rapid evolution of technology during the past three decades, according to library officials.

Staley said the increased funding would also allow the system to keep up and expand services users in the community desire. 

The library’s operational needs are immediate and emphasized that the flat budget in recent years already forced cuts and adjustments, according to MCPL. Without approval of the levy increase, officials might have to consider further reductions in staff and operating hours, the reduction and phasing out of some current programming and deferment of building maintenance, including parking lots, roofs and carpets for the existing buildings.

Mid-Continent said the increase would still keep its levy lower than those in other neighboring systems, including the City of Kansas City. 

Officials have stressed the benefits go beyond the nearly 8 million in-person and virtual visits and nearly 9 million items checked out. They want citizens to see the overall benefit for the community through resources and programs, even for those who don’t actively use the library.
That starts with convincing voters to fund the changes with an additional yearly cost of $15.20 for a home worth $100,000 to $38.00 for a home worth $250,000.

“The library would do everything they can to continue to serve as many of our missions as we can for as long as we can, but we would have to start making some hard choices,” Staley said. “We don’t want this to be a scary thing, but we don’t want to be unrealistic about where we’re going either.”