Library issue may divide Columbia, rural voters

dhinshaw@thestate.comSeptember 29, 2013 

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— If Columbia voters are motivated to cast ballots Nov. 5 in a three-man race for mayor, that could help advocates of a proposed tax increase for libraries, some observers say.

City voters are likely to be more receptive to raising taxes for libraries – while county voters, with nothing else on the ballot to interest them, may choose to stay home on Election Day, political consultant Tige Watts said Sunday.

“In a place like Eastover, or south of Chapin, it’s going to be hard to get those folks out,” he said.

Michael Letts, who’s working against the library tax, agrees – and said he suspects that was part of the library’s campaign strategy.

“The timing is suspect,” he said.

This is the first city election to be held in the fall. From here on out, city elections will be held on odd-numbered years, known as off-year elections, when there are no federal or state races on the ballot. The municipalities of Arcadia Lakes and Blythewood are holding council elections on Nov. 5, too.

The library referendum will appear on ballots countywide.

So far, there’s been little publicity about the $59 million proposal to enhance and expand the county’s 11-library system. The package would raise property taxes $12 to $14 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

After the worst recession in a lifetime, and an extra county sales tax chipping away at household budgets since May, the traditional wisdom is that voters automatically would say “no” to higher taxes, Watts said.

But library supporter Rick Ott said the library has a compelling message. It has expanded beyond being “a book depository” to providing programs for young people and those looking for employment.

“This is a very modest request of only $1 a month” for many, said Ott, an executive with M.B. Kahn Construction Co. and leader of Vote for Our Library.

He said the timing of the referendum was guided, in part, by the “perfect environment” for borrowing money and getting economical construction bids. But advocates also wanted to “keep it simple” by making sure the referendum didn’t have to compete with other ballot questions that can slow voters in the booth.

“The planning’s been in place since 2007 for the capital program,” Ott said. “Frankly, I think it just all came together the last couple of years and the decision was made, since we’ve got a number of municipal races on Nov. 5, to go ahead and put it on there.”

Letts said his strategy will be to target voters in unincorporated areas in hopes of countering the city’s turnout.

Efforts to reach Ott’s chief campaign strategist, Heyward Bannister, with BANCO/Bannister Co., were unsuccessful.

The Not Another Tax Increase group intends to match the $50,000 campaign budget that Ott’s Vote for Our Library group has pledged to raise.

While Letts and his group will be talking a lot about taxes, he also questions why the library needs to expand buildings in the digital age.

“I don’t have to go down to the library anymore,” he said. “I can access all that from my home, from my office. Is there a need for a large infrastructure to house all that?”

But Ott said the library is experiencing a demand for community meeting space, which would be added at each of the library’s 11 locations.

Another interesting factor in the political story: BANCO and Richard Quinn & Associates are running the re-election campaign of Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, too.

Benjamin is being challenged for a second term by fellow council member Moe Baddourah and businessman Larry Sypolt.

Where would the money go?

On Nov. 5, the library is asking Richland County voters for permission to borrow $59 million for systemwide improvements. Some highlights:

Main library: Renovation and reconfiguration. New heating and air systems; multipurpose meeting space and conference room; exterior improvements for families with strollers.

Ballentine: New library. Seventy-person meeting room and conference room.

Blythewood: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion. Teen space, meeting room, larger restrooms, learning lab, group study room.

Cooper: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion. Teen space, 12-student learning lab, two tutor rooms or small conference rooms. Expand meeting space with kitchen.

Eastover (completed in April): Renovation and expansion. Meeting room, tutor room and additional computers. Children’s area by EdVenture.

Northeast: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion. Small conference room, 12-student learning lab, expand meeting room with kitchen.

North Main: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion. Teen space, 12-student learning lab, two tutor rooms or small conference rooms, expand meeting room with kitchen.

Sandhills: New library. Lounge and exhibit space, 250-500 seat auditorium to be shared with a partner organization, computer area in children’s department.

Southeast: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion. Four tutoring or small conference rooms, meeting space with kitchen.

St. Andrews: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion. Teen space, meeting room with kitchen.

Wheatley: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion. Increased children’s space.

NOTE: For all the details, see

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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