June 5, 2012

Stanislaus library backers cheer passage of Measure T

Stanislaus County library supporters breathed a huge and happy sigh of relief Tuesday as voters overwhelmingly agreed to renew the special tax that has kept branches open for 17 years.

Stanislaus County library supporters breathed a huge and happy sigh of relief Tuesday as voters overwhelmingly agreed to renew the special tax that has kept branches open for 17 years.

Needing 66.67 percent approval to pass, incomplete returns showed Measure T cruising toward triumph with 32,090 "yes" votes, or 81.87 percent.

"We're ecstatic," Save Stanislaus Libraries co-chairman Scott Monday said at a victory party. He credited a strategy relying on coordinators in each community, an army of volunteers and an effective fund-raising campaign.

Administrators had warned of a grim future for all of the system's 13 branches if Measure T were to go down. A mailer featured a photograph of a large "Closed" sign with a caption reading, "Don't let this happen to our libraries."

The ‹-cent surcharge on sales tax, which provides upward of 90 percent of the library budget, does not expire until 2013. Planning for the worst, supporters approached voters a year early to give time for another strategy, just in case.

It appears that hard work by up to 300 dedicated volunteers paid off.

Businesses and families donated about $170,000 to the campaign, far exceeding the last renewal effort eight years ago. People with influence gave moving presentations to various groups. Community coordinators knew which buttons to push in their neighborhoods, Monday said.

"There wasn't any single activity or category of activities, just a very broad approach," he said.

The library tax narrowly passed with 68.2 percent on its first try in 1995 and captured an impressive 81.1 percent when renewed in 1999, but support dropped to 71.9 percent in 2004. Measure T extends the tax five years beyond 2013.

This year's campaign had fans in all corners and faced no organized opposition. Measure T signs seemed more numerous than any other this campaign season and many libraries appear to be as popular as ever.

But Measure T was confronted by a stagnant economy, voter tax fatigue and a surge in electronic media competing for readers' attention. Also, the Yes on T camp chose to piggyback on Tuesday's presidential primary rather than hold a costly special election, which typically favors a tax requiring supermajority approval.

Before votes were counted Tuesday, campaign co-chairwoman Bev Finley said supporters were crossing fingers. "We're very anxious," she said. "Two-thirds (approval) is a dicey thing in today's climate."

When the tax first passed 17 years ago, branch hours went from 240 per week to 474. The tax has raised more than $107 million since, costing the average family about $1.66 per month.

Libraries are popular with job seekers and provide children's story times and teen services. Administrators hope soon to provide digital volumes for e-readers. And literacy tutors helped 1,457 adults last year.

Patrons get access to 781,000 books, magazines, DVDs and CDs, 129 computers, and free wireless Internet.

But revenue plummeted with the recession, from $12.4 million in 2008 to $8.4 million in 2010 and $7.2 million this year. Three years ago, the system lost 79 positions. Further cuts in 2010 forced 29 layoffs and closed all branches on Fridays.

Efforts to pass a road tax in Stanislaus County suffered failure in 2006 and 2008, and transportation leaders last year decided not to try again.

Undaunted, library enthusiasts gathered endorsements from nearly every office holder, community leader, union and civic group around, and even won support from conservative politicians and the Republican Party of Stanislaus County.

"There aren't many things we all agree about these days, except Measure T!" a mailer exclaimed.

Monday said: "When you're a big kid in school and you get in a fight, everyone expects you to win. If you don't, you're pretty embarrassed.

"This is a testament to the county and to such a huge number of volunteers for a cause. We are very pleased."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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