A Levy is More Than a Campaign: Winning Begins and Ends with Vision and Value

By: Susan Post

November 8, 2016 was a monumental day for the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL), located in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Three counties in the area - Jackson, Clay and Platte - included library levy Proposition L on their ballots. The library levy requested an 8 cent increase that would raise property taxes from 32 cents to 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, adding an estimated $9.5 million to the Library’s current annual operating budget of $42 million.

The money from the levy would go towards the construction of six new buildings and the renovation of an additional 28 of the system’s 31 branches. An increased budget would allow MCPL to expand services in a multitude of ways, from adding operating hours, to bettering internet connectivity, and offering more resources for children, seniors and small businesses. Finally, more money could be invested in library materials.

By November 9, 2016, the area responded with a resounding ‘Yes,’ passing Proposition L with 62.3 percent.

MCPL’s first property tax levy increase since 1983, it was a hard-fought battle that the Library began planning for nearly a decade ago. The Library system was in many ways the same system that passed the previous levy, focused inward and disconnected from other parts of the community. To prepare for a future levy, MCPL had to focus on building a more customer and community-focused library system.

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The library rebranded to reflect a more customer-focused vision that better addressed the community’s needs and wants. “Access Your World” became the tagline for the 31-branch system serving the three counties.

“The Library began to more actively promote services beyond the Library walls, began to look for partnerships with outside organizations, began to send staff to participate in community conversations, and generally started to think in terms of its role in the community,” says MCPL Community Relations and Planning Director Jim Staley.

While these efforts began in 2006, in 2014 the financial need for the levy started to make itself apparent. The recession had plateaued MCPL’s budget since 2009.

“We looked at future finances and realized our current levy amount wasn’t sustainable,” Staley says. “In addition, we had completed a Capital Improvement Plan that had no identified funding stream.”

The Library spent nearly a year discussing how they might go about the campaign and preparing for its implementation.

As the levy hit ballots in November 2016, MCPL’s internal efforts, a citizen-led “yes” committee, the national political action committee EveryLibrary, and data and analytics provider OrangeBoy each played a critical role in building awareness within the Library’s widely dispersed and diversified service area.

The “Yes” for libraries committee focused on all voters, not just those who were users of the library, while MCPL’s outreach zeroed in on users of the Library. Every Library provided guidance on best practices. OrangeBoy provided data on the Library’s existing customer base and a powerful tool for organizing data through its data integration platform, Savannah.

In addition to outreach through social media on Facebook and advertising efforts, MCPL used Savannah to send a series of three messages to all cardholders. The first reminded cardholders to register to vote. A second email about two weeks before the election included a letter from Library Director & CEO Steven Potter outlining what the Library would do if the levy passed or did not, and a final outreach days before the election reminded eligible cardholders to vote. 

The ”Yes” campaign’s efforts to reach voters focused on direct mail campaigns and Facebook. The lobbying organization also created a special website - http://www.voteformymcpl.org - outlining information about MCPL’s role in the community and a plethora of facts about the levy, down to what improvements would be made at each branch affected.

The Proposition L campaign was not without challenges. In the months leading up to the election, several officials in one of the three counties within the MCPL district expressed hesitation to put the measure on the ballot citing a difference of opinion on state statutes. Ultimately, the disagreement resulted in a legal dispute in which the court sided with the Library. Finally, on the ballot in the entire district, Proposition L went on to pass with support from the majority of voters in all three counties.

Despite challenges, the community showed its support and value for MCPL. Ten years of refocusing and connecting made a difference.

“I am sure that we finished far ahead of where we would have had we stayed the same organization we were in the early 2000s,” Staley says. “By rebranding, becoming more community and customer focused, and by becoming more strategic about our choices, we proved to our community and voters that the Library was indeed a vital institution.”

Post-election, MCPL is evaluating its efforts leveraging Savannah’s data capabilities to understand the effectiveness of its marketing and outreach. OrangeBoy and the Library will assess voter information to gain an understanding of voting behavior by precinct, county and more and share results later this year.

Susan Post is a freelance writer for OrangeBoy, Inc. OrangeBoy helps libraries of all sizes, from small single-location community libraries to large urban systems, deliver and communicate value to succeed.

 

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