If Cedar Rapids voters shelve a 27-cent levy on Tuesday to fund the city’s public libraries, it won’t be because its backers didn’t mount a well-financed, sophisticated campaign.
I spent some time digging through campaign finance filings this week, which is what passes for fun in my wonkish world. They reveal a library levy campaign with hefty financial backing from the city’s business community, enough bucks to pay for professional help from experienced marketing and political pros.
“It’s something we feel is very important to the community, to the quality of life here. We just want to see the library supported in a sustainable fashion,” said Joe Lock, who chairs the library’s board of trustees. “We’ve got a lot to brag about, but we also want to put our best foot forward.”
The property tax levy would raise $1.6 million annually, providing a permanent stable source of funding for the state’s most-used library system. Without the levy, library staff say they’ll likely need to curtail programming and possibly close the downtown and west side Ladd Library one day each week.
Right now, the library’s roughly $5 million total operating budget includes stopgap city funding that expires next year and dollars from its foundation, a fundraising entity that was never intended to be a source of operating funds. Also, the city has been issuing bonded debt to buy library materials. The levy would cover all of those gaps.
The library’s own foundation donated $20,000 to Our Library, Our Community, the campaign committee backing the levy. Five businesses, United Fire, Diamond V Mills, Hillcrest Holdings (CRST), Transamerica and the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance donated $10,000 each. The Gazette Company donated $8,000 and OPN architects, who designed the downtown library, donated $5,000.
All in all, the committee raised more than $95,000, not too shabby for a local ballot issue. And it has spent more than $70,000 so far, much of that on a trio of marketing and political consulting firms.
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Early on, the campaign received $23,000 worth of research and polling assistance from Political Brinq, a Clive-based business that counts Marcia Rogers among its staff. Rogers worked on the successful effort to pass a Linn County casino referendum, among other campaigns. Her son is Democratic County Supervisor Ben Rogers.
In July, the levy committee contracted with Amperage, a large advertising and marketing firm formed in 2014 by the merger of Henry Russell Bruce and ME & V Advertising, with offices in Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Des Moines, Dubuque and the Quad Cities. Amperage has handled messaging, marketing, web services social media and an assortment of public relations duties for the campaign. Its chief strategy officer and “director of cool” is Mark Mathis, who is married to state Sen Liz Mathis.
Throughout the campaign, backers have been getting free advice from EveryLibrary, a national non-profit group that works on library ballot issues across the county.
But the most significant bucks the campaign has spent could be the more than $25,000 it’s dispatched to PAD Inc., a Des Moines-based political consulting firm founded by longtime Iowa Democratic strategist Peter D’Alessandro. D’Alessandro was political director for former Gov. Chet Culver, political director for presidential hopeful Bill Bradley and field director for Tom Vilsack’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign.
Lock said former state Rep. Tyler Olson, who is a member of the library’s foundation board, recommended PAD to spearhead voter canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts in the final weeks before the election. Because D’Alessandro is tied up with work as state coordinator for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, he dispatched his partner, Cedar Rapids native John Hedgecoth.
Hedgecoth was a policy director and senior adviser to Culver and managed former state Sen. Jack Hatch’s uphill gubernatorial campaign in 2014. He also made headlines this spring when he lost his law license. Now, he’s returned to his roots.
“(Pete) asked if I was interested, and I thought it looked like a chance to be a part of something that would be good for my hometown,” Hedgecoth said in a Facebook message. He’s been on the ground in Cedar Rapids since the beginning of October, knocking on doors along with volunteers to touch base with key identified voters.
Lock said the campaign is making face-to-face visits with more than 800 voters identified as likely to vote and back the levy. “This isn’t a persuasion campaign at this point. This is please get out and vote and we hope you support the library,” Lock said.
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On Election Day, he said 40 volunteers will work two to three hour shifts knocking on doors one last time.
“We’re very optimistic. The key is getting people out to vote,” Lock said. “In an off-cycle election like this, voter apathy, not getting people to the polls, is the thing we’re fighting the most. So we’re really trying to pull out all the stops.”
It’s cliché, of course, but it all hinges on who shows up. Tax opponents, as a general rule, tend to be more motivated than tax supporters. So supporters face an extra burden in turning out votes.
Judging by the paltry number of absentee ballots that have been requested, just 1,038 in Cedar Rapids as of Friday, very low turnout is possible. City council races, even the five-way contest for two at-large seats, haven’t exactly captivated local voters. Perhaps if the library were offering casino gambling, turnout would spike.
But I think the case for the levy is sound. Cedar Rapids has a well-used, high-quality library system that should be a point of community pride. Keeping it that way requires stable funding.
I haven’t heard a good argument against it. Some people simply don’t want to pay more taxes, which I can understand. But a lot of the folks I’ve heard from on the issue cite their dislike for the city’s decision five years ago to build a new library to replace the flooded downtown facility. They see the big, shiny, pricey building as a symbol of governmental excess, even though it was built without debt. They’re certain that the new library is the source of current budget issues.
Truth is, library officials faced significant budget issues and were considering a levy increase when I got here in 2007, before the flood. Sooner or later, the library system was going to need a levy boost.
And I’m not sure how seeing that big, pricey building sit dark one day a week will make critics feel better. Making the library system less useful and less accessible to residents and taxpayers isn’t more fiscally responsible than adequately funding a city service used by tens of thousands of people, of all ages, neighborhoods and backgrounds. I’d call it misguided and shortsighted.
Agree or disagree. Just make sure you vote Tuesday.
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