Richland County voters approve $59 million for library additions

dhinshaw@thestate.comNovember 5, 2013 

Supporters of the Richland County Library referendum gathered to await the results of the vote. They cheered the early results.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

Richland County voters handed the library $59 million for systemwide additions and renovations Tuesday.

With turnout light in unincorporated areas, residents casting ballots for Columbia mayor and City Council carried the referendum, which will raise property taxes come January 2015.

The measure passed easily, with voters saying they’re proud of the system built 20 years ago and want to keep it relevant in the digital age, adding more technology and expanding its mission.

“I’m overwhelmed by people’s trust and belief in us,” said library director Melanie Huggins, who will execute the plan to renovate the main library downtown and expand nine of 10 branches scattered around the county.

Read how your precinct and others voted on the measure in our interactive map.

Patrons are eager to see what’s next.

“If it’s improving libraries, I’m all for it,” faithful library user Loretta Goodwin said after voting for a tax increase of $12 to $14 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Granby voter Joe Wider said he takes out-of-town visitors to the main library to show off. “I love my library,” he said. “It’s one of the few things we have to be proud of in Columbia.”

Walton Selig, who voted at Woodland Park, and Madison Dye, at Asbury Memorial United Methodist, supported the library-tax increase out of a sense of civic duty.

“I’m embarrassed to tell you I don’t get down there very often,” Selig said, “but that’s one of the most important things in our community – in any community.”

“A progressive city needs a good library system,” Dye said.

Huggins said her goal would be to develop a timeframe for projects within six months, but that she expects the signature library, at Assembly and Hampton streets, to be at the top of the construction list, along with new libraries to be built in Ballentine and Northeast Richland.

“By 2015, you will start seeing renovations and improvements happening,” she said.

Library leaders put forward a proposal based on current use at branch libraries, trends and 21st century libraries. But Huggins said there’s plenty of time for patrons to weigh in on the exact improvements to community libraries. They’ll be asked to participate in focus groups, fill out surveys – even leave post-it notes with librarians.

In fact, meetings already have been planned for architects to talk with library users about renovations to the main library. They will be held at 3 p.m. on Nov. 17, 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 and 9 a.m. on Nov. 20.

“We want the communities to be proud of their libraries,” Huggins said. “We have ideas – that’s how we knew how much money we needed – but there is room for community engagement and community feedback.”

The $59 million loan will be repaid in 20 years.

Tax opponents criticized the referendum because it was scheduled during off-year elections, saying voters in unincorporated areas wouldn’t be motivated to go to the polls.

They also said the library’s needs didn’t seem urgent, expanding libraries into community centers when schools, churches, park buildings – even restaurants – provide space for meetings. The libraries are slated to get new study centers, meeting space – even kitchens.

But library supporters organized, and easily quashed concerns about raising property taxes during difficult economic times.

“People take pride in having one of the best library systems in the country,” said Rick Ott, who led the pro-library campaign.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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