Portage County District Library hopes to boost rural services with 1-mill levy

Aurora parent Lorena Vines looks on as her son Liam glues googly eyes on a monster craft during story time at Aurora Memorial Library. Lyndsey Brennan/The Portager

Mantua resident Lorrie Atkinson doesn’t drive and can’t regularly make trips to the Garrettsville Branch of the Portage County District Library, a 15-minute drive away, to pick up books and magazines. 

Fortunately for residents like Atkinson, the library can come to her. 

Every other week, a library employee delivers items she’s requested to her front door — usually large-print books — and takes a few minutes to visit with her. Without this service, she said she would not be able to get reading material.

“It’s wonderful they can do that for older people who don’t get out, who can’t get to the library,” she said. “Reading gives you something to do, you know? It gives you an outlet and [takes your mind off] the stresses that you have.”

The district library is seeking to pass a 1-mill levy on Nov. 2 to sustain programs like the homebound service. Atkinson said she plans to vote for the levy because she values the library’s services and wants to continue seeing them offered to her neighbors. 

Signs in the lobby of the Aurora Memorial Library. Lyndsey Brennan/The Portager

After facing cuts from Ohio’s Public Library Fund in 2009, the library has struggled to pay continually rising operating costs. (Presently, the district library’s funding comes exclusively from the state. It receives no money from local taxes.)

While some communities had success passing a levy, PCDL did not, making it the third worst-funded library system in the state. Instead, it was forced to close its Brimfield branch and reduce hours at the remaining branch libraries in Aurora, Garrettsville, Streetsboro, Randolph and Windham.

“We get less money from the state now than we did back in 1998,” said Director Jon Harris. “And there’s a whole lot that has changed since then — [materials] became more expensive, and eBooks and streaming didn’t exist at the time.”

He continued: “The money we get is, dollar for dollar, the same kind of money Kent [Free Library] and [Reed Memorial Library in] Ravenna gets. The difference is they each cover one school district — PCDL covers nine. We have five times as many buildings and five times as many people we need to serve.” 

If passed, the levy would generate around $3 million annually, allowing the library system to restore hours at its locations and entertain the possibility of opening another, establish a consistent bookmobile presence in townships where there aren’t branches, expand its materials and programming budgets, and potentially offer workers more competitive wages. 

Homeowners would pay $35 in property taxes yearly for a home assessed at $100,000 starting in 2022 through 2030, Harris said. 

PCDL Board of Trustees President Betty Clapp has been on the board through three previous failed levy attempts. Since joining the board, she said, the library’s financial “situation has not improved.” 

“It’s awful. There are people who need the library, and you would like to be able to do everything you could [for them] — but you’re facing the reality of the fiscal shortcomings. We’re not operating in the red or anything. But to be able to provide the level of service we would like, we need to have more funding.” 

If the levy vote were to fail again, Clapp said she’s uncertain what would happen. “But I don’t think we could sustain the level we’re at for very long.”

Why libraries matter

Studies show that strong library systems add value to the communities they serve. Some of those benefits, especially in rural communities, are providing internet to areas with weaker broadband infrastructure, helping patrons launch small businesses and develop job skills in communities where there is little or no economic growth, and presenting opportunities for older adults to stay mentally and socially healthy. 

Children’s librarian Sandy Tucker shows story time attendees the monster craft they’ll put together with their caregiver. Lyndsey Brennan/The Portager

Libraries with robust funding also benefit children. Ample research has found access to print materials has a profound effect on children’s reading aptitude — and therefore, success in school — regardless of their family’s income level. But when underfunded libraries suffer from smaller collections, fewer books per child, and limited nighttime hours, it can be difficult to get books that interest children into their hands. 

For instance, the sole PCDL building serving southern Portage’s four school districts, the Randolph Branch, is open 25 hours a week, and its only evening hours are on Mondays and Tuesdays. Passing a levy would mean restoring hours in Randolph and allowing the board to consider opening another branch in the southern part of the county.

Sandy Tucker, who has served as the Youth Services Librarian at Aurora Memorial Library for the past 20 years, said she doesn’t feel the library’s present budget is adequate for the amount of books and events she’d like to offer. 

At one point, Aurora employed a part-time person in the children’s department who helped her with storytimes and programming for children and teens. When that position was cut, it limited the events Tucker was able to plan. 

“I’m just one person,” she said. 

For communities that don’t have a branch, Harris’s plan, if the levy passes, is to provide regular mobile service to each school district by visiting schools during the school year and other community locations where people are likely to be during the summer.

Having a budget for mobile services would enable library employees to bring materials to Nelson Township, which Harris said has a “strong and growing Amish and Mennonite population,” some of whom do not use cars.

Levy money would also enable the library to look at raising wages for employees. “I gotta tell you, we’ve been hiring for a while — or attempting to — and we’re running into the same thing every other employer is running into: the inability to … keep up with what amounts to a competitive wage. That is a problem for us.” 

But, Harris said, “we are a union shop, and there is a re-opener clause in our contract to look at wages if a levy passes.”

Why do library levies fail in Portage? 

Earlier this year, voters in Summit County passed a 1.9-mill levy, with a whopping 76% of the vote. Last year, voters in Cuyahoga County passed a 1-mill levy (in addition to their existing 2.5 mill continuing levy), and in 2019, Stark County passed a 2-mill levy.

North of Portage, Geauga County covers its library systems’ operating costs with two 1-mill continuing (meaning permanent) levies, and in 2017, passed a 0.5-mill bond issue to construct three new branch locations. 

Portage County residents, meanwhile, have voted down 11 previous levy attempts. Why?

“I think there are people right now who don’t want to spend more money on taxes, regardless of who it helps,” said Clapp, the board president.  

A sign at the Aurora Memorial Library. Lyndsey Brennan/The Portager

“There are people who think, ‘If I can go into a bookstore and buy a book, or if I can have books delivered, or I can get my on-demand TV material, then everybody can do that.’ But if you think about it, you realize there are a lot of people who can’t,” Clapp said.

There are others who might think, “‘I can just go to a different library,’” she said. “And that’s fine, if you’re in a location where you can do that. But there are people who don’t have that flexibility.” 

She and Harris said they hope that when residents go to vote on Nov. 2, they consider their neighbors — “whether that’s a neighbor who might be out of work and looking for help getting a job or a neighbor who’s homebound and needs our materials delivered to them,” Harris said.

“They might not get something out of this, but one of their neighbors will,” he said. 

Harris doesn’t see the “third worst-funded library in the state” designation as an indictment of Portage residents.

“For a lot of the county, I can absolutely understand” voting against a levy, Harris said. “There are a chunk of voters who don’t know what an adequately funded library can do for their community — and that’s not entirely their fault. We haven’t been in a position to show them.”

Lorena Vines, an Aurora parent who has been bringing her children to storytimes at the library for at least seven years, said PCDL has played an important role in her kids’ intellectual and social development. 

She plans to vote for the levy because she sees that the library system has potential to do more. “I’ve always felt like there’s opportunity for growth in this library,” she said. “But if the levy doesn’t pass, that’s not going to happen.”

Because of an editor’s error, a previous version of this article suggested that branch offices may need to close if the levy does not pass. Library officials have not said there is any such threat.

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Lyndsey Brennan is a Portager general assignment reporter. She is completing her master's degree in journalism at Kent State and is an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund internship program. Contact her at lyndsey@theportager.com.

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