Elections

Cedar Rapids Library levy fails, board to shift course

Only nine of 43 city precincts voted for the measure, all on the east side

CEDAR RAPIDS — Library lovers here have taken their licks in the past when asking voters for sizable amounts of city tax dollars to support the library.

That was the case again on Tuesday when the library’s request for a tax levy to help fund library operations was turned back, with 54.92 percent of voters voting against the measure, 45.08 percent for it.

Only nine of 43 city precincts voted for the measure, all on the east side. Early absentee voters also said no.

Last night, a disappointed Joe Lock, president of the city’s library board, said the board now will huddle in the months ahead as it contemplates “shifting course” to accommodate library patrons within the resources that the citizens think the library should have.

It’s apt to mean a reduction in the 68-hour, seven-day-a-week library operation.

Susan McDermott, the library board member, called it a “sad” election result for the “thousands and thousands” of Cedar Rapidians who depend on the library.

The library, with an annual budget of $6.3 million, is fully funded through June 30, 2016, though with the help of one-time emergency funding and support of about $1.5 million in extra city dollars.

The levy money was to be used to replace emergency funding to help run operations and to allow the library to spend $500,000 a year to keep its collection current.

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Mayor Ron Corbett said the election defeat fit into a larger history in which the library has had difficulty over the years in rallying support from the public for spending measures.

Cedar Rapids voters five times from 1969 through 1980 rejected a ballot measure to sell bonds to build a new library with city tax dollars. Private donations finally got a new library build in 1985 at 500 First St. SE.

“So the library has had a bumpy past,” the mayor said.

The 1985 library was damaged in the 2008 flood, prompting the construction of the new downtown library. It opened in 2013 debt free, thanks to the help of federal, state and city disaster money and private donations.

Over the years, city voters had been willing to approve a library levy of 4 cents per $1,000 of taxable assessed property valuation to buy books, but the small levy lapsed in 2014.

Corbett said the jump from a small levy to the request for a 27-cent one may have factored in Tuesday’s defeat. He said he could imagine a request of voters down the line for a library levy smaller than 27 cents, but larger than 4 cents.

At precinct polling places on Tuesday, one thing seemed clear — voters knew how they felt about the library levy.

Ron Hammerberg, 59, who voted in Precinct 12 in northeast Cedar Rapids, said he voted for the library levy, but emphasized, “with trepidation.”

Hammerberg, an insurance salesman, said his reservations centered on his recollection that city officials had said they could operate the library within the existing city budget as they were building the new $46-million downtown library with the help of federal, state and city disaster money and private donations.

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“Here we are, two or three years later, asking for more money,” Hammerberg said. “… It’s a magnificent building, but maybe better planning should have been gone into it.”

In Precinct 10 in northeast Cedar Rapids, Jayne Woodson, 80, didn’t think twice about voting for the library levy.

“Not enough people use the library, and I think it’s very important in this town,” she said.

But the vote wasn’t a close call for some on the other side of the issue, either.

Pat Hoffman, 85, and Dave McLaughlin, 55, both voted against the levy at Precinct 29 in southwest Cedar Rapids.

McLaughlin, a businessman, said most people these days get their information and “knowledge” through the Internet, not from books that you can hold in your hand.

“I know they say the library has more to offer than books,” McLauglin said. But he said the money (being sought in the library levy) could better be used for other educational endeavors.

Hoffman said she didn’t think that the city should have built a new downtown library, even if disaster dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped pay the bills. Instead, the city should have fixed up the flood-damaged former library at 500 First St. SE, “especially when the city didn’t know how much it would cost to run” the new library, she said.

David Tominsky, who co-chaired the Our Library, Our Community campaign for the library levy, said he, too, was disappointed in the election outcome. But he said he is among a large group of “positive people” who aren’t going to stop working to build Cedar Rapids for the future.

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“This won’t slow me down,” said Tominsky, project manager at the Iowa Startup Accelerator.

Turnout was light — 16.2 percent of registered voters voted on the library issue. Next door in Marion, 19.2 percent of registered voters voted in the mayoral race. Two years ago, 22.3 percent of registered voters voted in the Cedar Rapids mayoral race that year.

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