(Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 25--So what if their candidate never appeared on a ballot before?
This group has political savvy.
They formed a political action committee, advertised on billboards around Hazleton, retained a public relations firm, printed brochures and met with local media.
When the primary election on April 24 nears, they plan to post signs in yards and pass out handbills at the polls.
Their candidate is the Hazleton Area Public Library and their slogan: "Save Our Libraries."
Instead of campaigning for office, they ask voters to support their request for consistent funding.
Every year, the library receives a portion of taxes collected by the Hazleton Area School District.
A question on the ballot asks voters if they want to fix the rate that goes to the library.
"This is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. This is a community issue," James C. Reinmiller, the library's executive director for the past 34 years, said.
If a majority votes "yes" to the question, the millage set to fund the library will be constant. Because the property tax structure differs in the three counties that the school district touches, so will the rates. Residents will pay 0.1879 mills in Luzerne County, 0.6381 mills in Schuylkill County and 0.6092 mills in Carbon County.
In each county, $2.07 of every $100 that the school district collects in property tax would go to the library if voters approve.
If voters say "no" to the question, the school directors will continue deciding how much to give to the library each year.
With school directors making decisions, funding lacks predictability.
This year, the district gave the library $631,775, which is less than four years ago when the library received $635,000.
Funding fell to $617,000 in 2008-2009 before climbing to $673,000 two years ago and $695,000 last year.
Coupled with the swings of money from the school district, the library grant from the state has shrunk steadily during the past four years. State government gave $206,900 to the library this year, compared with $305,581 four years ago.
With funds falling $63,225 from the school district and $4,300 from the state this year, the library trimmed its $1.2 million budget, which supports the main library in Hazleton and branch libraries in Conyngham, Nuremberg, Freeland and McAdoo.
Reinmiller said the main library is open eight fewer hours a week this year than last year. Canceling subscriptions to about 40 magazines at the five libraries saved $2,500. The library spent $4,180 less on books than last year and trimmed $4,000 from annual payroll by reducing hours that employees work.
Reinmiller also postponed adding services that he wants to start, such as providing wireless Internet to anyone using their laptop computer in the library and purchasing e-books that library patrons who own e-readers can check out for a few weeks, as they do with paper books. A contract with e-book distributor OverDrive would cost $20,000, he said.
"There's a lot we can do if we get (funding) back to where we were last year," he said.
Funding from the school district, the state and Luzerne County, which gave $183,500 to the library in both of the past two years, pays for operations and supplies.
Improvements to the library buildings and other capital projects, such as a new roof on the main library that cost $120,000, are paid through donations and private grants.
A fundraising campaign called Renewing a Classic that the library began two years ago -- just as the economy slumped -- has raised $400,000 of the $1.3 million target. The money donated so far is in a bank, but will pay for a list of innovations like new elevators, energy-saving controls for heating and ventilation, a reading section for teenagers and a parking lot east of the main library. At the branches, the plans call for new paint, shelves and carpeting in Conyngham, remodeling for in Freeland and new furniture and equipment in Nuremberg.
If the Renewing a Classic campaign misses its goal, the library will scrap projects such as restoring wooden moldings and uncapping half-moon windows in the original Hazleton building, which is nearly a century old.
In a sluggish economy, Reinmiller said libraries become more important as people use them to research jobs and borrow books that they don't have the extra money to buy.
According to the Pennsylvania Library Association, library visits increased 4 percent and lending of books and videos went up 6 percent between 2006 and 2010. Sharing of books and materials between libraries, which also tried to economize, went up 58 percent during that period.
In the Hazleton area, the population of the 16 municipalities that the library serves increased to more than 70,000, based on the U.S. Census of 2010. The library's 20,000 cardholders borrowed 140,000 items, and 900 children attended reading programs in the summer.
For people who think the Internet makes libraries obsolete, Reinmiller pointed out that the digital items opened by library users increased 72 percent last year in Pennsylvania. Reference questions answered through the library association's website, askherepa.org, rose more than 400 percent. On their website, hazletonlibrary.org, cardholders can search 20 databases. Sixteen thousand people came to the Hazleton library to use computers in 2010-11, which is 1,000 more than the previous fiscal year.
Reinmiller doesn't think computers will replace libraries as long as people still feel as happy as he did about getting their first library card, a rite of passage that he still watches when children visit the library. "To see the joy on their faces" remains one of his favorite parts of the job, he said.
When asking people to vote "yes" on the question, Reinmiller said he expects people will ask him if a "yes" vote will lead the school directors to raise taxes. They might, but they also might raise taxes if people vote "no," he said.
Between 1984 and 1998, property tax bills sent by the Hazleton Area School District contained a separate tax for the library. Rules set under Pennsylvania Act 1 of 2006 prevent the district from listing the library's portion of the tax separately without a referendum.
This year is pivotal in the process, Reinmiller said. If voters say "yes" to the question, the rates listed on the ballot cannot change without another referendum, which he wouldn't request.
"Once this is done, I'm not coming back," he said.
He expects the campaign to win approval of the referendum will consume his free time from now until the primary.
Reinmiller advocates for the "yes" vote on his own time, not when he is being paid as a library executive.
Likewise, private donations pay for the efforts of the political action committee, called Save Our Libraries. The advertising and public relations firm of Precision Design assists the PAC.
Lamar Advertising donated billboards to the library, and the Standard-Speaker also donated advertising to Save Our Libraries.
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