Voters overwhelmingly approve tax levy increase for Mid-Continent Public Library

After a tumultuous path to the Tuesday, Nov. 8 election, the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL) appeared on the way to an overwhelming victory for its system.

Proposition L passed by a wide margin in Clay and Platte counties, while early returns in Jackson County were also positive. The largest geographical library system in the 48 contiguous states, MCPL currently includes 31 branches in those three counties. Eight of those lie in Platte County, and revenue from the increased tax levy would provide updates to all of those.

According to unofficial results, Platte County voters approved of Proposition L by a margin of 28,474 to 19,578 — 59.26 percent to 40.74 percent. Clay County showed similar results at 59.49 percent to 40.51 percent in favor with 77 of 78 precincts reporting.

Jackson County results were a little slower to come in, but unofficial results with 135 of 185 precincts showed with 62.74 in favor.

The measure encountered challenges just to reach the ballot.

The MCPL’s board voted to place the initiative on the ballot during a meeting in late June by a 9-1 margin with recently resigned member Nancy Kraus Womack of Platte County the lone dissenting voice. As the summer wore on, elected officials in Platte and Clay counties 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, which read, “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?” The levy goes up from 32 cents to 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
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.

Branches in Camden Point, Dearborn, Edgerton, Parkville and Weston would undergo 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.

According to the MCPL officials, 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.

In addition to questioning the ballot language, Schieber also voiced his opposition to a “forever tax” with no sunset clause, which could allow future voters an opportunity to renew or discontinue the increased revenue 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.

Opponents 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.

MCPL officials 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. If the proposition failed, officials said they would have had 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.

Despite the increase, MCPL’s levy remains 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.