Podcast Episode: Pass a Millage Increase

The following is a transcript of this episode of the Advancing America’s Libraries Podcast.

Pam:  Today we have Lisa Hoenig with us. Lisa is Director of the Ypsilanti District Library, a library with a successful millage increase and an upcoming large building project. It's tough to raise operational funds especially in communities that were hard hit by the downturn in the economy. Lisa's story provides useful direction and insights.

Struggling communities, especially, need library services.

Julia: For those who have never been to Ypsilanti, tell us about your community.

Lisa: We're a district library in Michigan which means we serve multiple municipalities. We serve three very unique communities there--all very different from one another--and when we did our 2017-2022 strategic plan, the plan's name was "Three Communities, One Library, and a Plan for All."

The Ypsilanti city and Ypsilanti township particularly have been struggling somewhat economically in recent years with the closure of the auto plants and the exit of manufacturing jobs. The school systems are struggling; there is a lot of need here for library service. Our Library turned 150 years old last year and we're very proud of that.

We're a cornerstone for our community.

There's a third entity, Superior Township. It is again quite different. Superior is more of an agricultural, rural area, but it does have large pockets of socio-economic trouble to the south where it borders on the City of Ypsilanti. It again uses the troubled school districts. There are a lot of things the Library represents for all three communities and a lot of things that we are trying to do to help our community improve and survive.

Calm a financial health crisis by planning your campaign.

Pam:  So, three communities, one library. That's a big challenge. How did you manage to bring everyone together to successfully raise the millage fee?

What is a millage? Property taxes are calculated in mills with a portion sustaining the Library's operating budget.

Lisa: I was hired here in late 2015 when the previous director retired. The Board really wanted me to try to calm the Library's financial health crisis. We have a reasonably-sized fund balance, but our millage revenue wasn't big enough to cover our operating costs each year, so we were eating into it. The Library had wanted to build a new building in Superior Township back when the Township joined the district in 2007. A temporary facility was opened but the economic downturn hit and made that impossible. We had gone back on that promise, so the Board wanted me to find a solution for these two things. I thought about it for a year or two, and I finally figured out a plan that would work.

Part of what we wanted to do was really educate our community about how important the Library is. One of the tools I decided was important was a new strategic plan that would give us direction and let the public know what we were about and what we aimed to do for the community.

Lisa: We worked with The Ivy Group on the strategic plan and on rebranding the Library. Our previous brand was kind of stale, very adult and stately. Our new brand is much more youthful and energetic, and we used the energy to get our word out to people that the library is here, exciting, come use the library and see all that we can do.

We put the millage question on the ballot, and I worked with a large number of people from the public to create a grassroots citizens' committee that would advocate for the millage on behalf of the library. We won by a two-thirds margin across the district.

Julia: Had you expected that?

Lisa: We didn't know what to expect. Because the question was a little different for each of the three communities and there were differing opinions about taxes here, we weren't sure what we were going to get. But we knew the Library had strong support from the feedback we received from the strategic planning process, and we were very hopeful. We worked really hard and the hard work paid off.

Research can boost confidence or challenge preconceptions.

Pam: How did research help you during the phases of the millage campaign?

Lisa: The two areas that especially helped us were the executive interviews that you had recommended. We went out to talk to these folks about how they saw the library's role in the community and what they thought the library should be doing.

We heard a lot of different and interesting things.

I was able to build a network of people who were library supporters in various ways and what was important to them. I was able to learn from each of them snippets of information about the role the library could have and we used many for other purposes later.

One example is when we talked to the head of the library at Washtenaw Community College. He told us that the kids who came from the two school districts within our library district were the students who were least prepared to do college-level research. From that point forward, when I would talk to people I could use that anecdote to explain why the Library doing some of the things it was doing with the school would make such a difference. It opened the door for me to meet our municipal leaders and other community members who had high standing. 

The other area was the telephone survey we conducted. At the end of the survey, we asked people how likely they would be to vote on a millage to help the Library's funding even though at that point there was no board of education plan in place because that was early on. Fifty-one percent (51%) said yes. That gave my Board the feeling that if we did put voter education in behind the plan we came up with for our millage that we would hopefully succeed. And we did!

Pam: From my perspective, executive interviews are probably the most useful thing any library director can do.  Even if you're not in the middle of strategic planning, get out into the community and talk to people. They will tell you all sorts of valuable information for planning, staff development, and the Library's role in the community. I'm glad that worked for you. Telephone survey results can either give you confidence or refute your thinking. 

Lisa: It was interesting because during our strategic planning process we were also in the midst of doing community conversations as part of the Library's ALA "Transform Campaign". It was meaningful to us because in those conversations we were asking the community what their aspirations were for the community as a whole, not what their aspirations were for the Library or what the Library could do, and the results of the strategic planning and research affirmed each other. What we were learning was on track and right, and we felt really confident moving forward that we knew what our community really wanted.

Board and staff buy-in generates more support, more broadly.

Pam: Where was the board in all of this?

Lisa: The Board really supported the strategic planning and were behind it. They has asked me to find a solution for the millage plan, and it took me a couple of years to find out what financially what we could ask for and what we could try to do to not only keep the library afloat but to also construct this long-awaited building that we had not been able to achieve during the economic downturn.

What my plan was is we had a bond debt for the Library, which was to be retired, and we told voters that when the bond debt was retired, what we were asking them to vote for meant they would actually pay less taxes. That was for two of our three municipalities. As I mentioned, Superior Township didn't join the district until 2007 so they were not part of the debt millage. For them, the 0.7 mills requested in November would be completely new tax. They had not had a library there that was sufficient. Their library service was kind of far away, and we didn't know how they would respond. But there is a lot of excitement about this new building! We convinced them that it will make a difference for parts of the community that really need help as well as being a convenience for other folks.

Pam: Right now, they're in the spare room of a fire station, right?

Lisa: Yes.

Pam: How did you decide on the amount you were going to ask for?

Lisa: It was a Board decision. I worked with our accountant to figure out the costs required to meet the budget needs that were going to be important and everything the building needed. The architect gave us more updates to the budget because we had planned on this building years ago. We also figured out what kind of staffing levels we would want.

When we build this building, our fund balance will be quite low; therefore, it depended on the Board's comfort level with dipping the fund balance down. Once the building was built, the millage would help us build the fund balance back up. The Board needed to be willing to take a little bit of a risk. They are very much behind completing this building and fulfilling that promise to Superior Township back when they joined us.

Pam: How about the staff? Did the staff have a role?

Lisa: When we worked with Ivy on the strategic planning process, we decided the staff should have buy-in to the plan. So, we divided the staff into work groups, and they came up with a lot of ideas for the areas of focus in the plan. We made sure they were really invested in what we were doing and gave them some ownership of it. 

When we launched the millage campaign, we used two different types of consultants to help us. One of the things we did was work with every library, and they suggested that we form amongst the staff a community engagement team. I asked for volunteers, and I got twelve people from the staff who said yes. They wanted to reach out the community and see what type of support could be built. They were a big help and reached out to a lot of our partners and said to them, "This is what we are doing, and these are the things that can happen and how our relationship can be impacted if we succeed." Without telling people to vote "yes"--which we can't do--they were able to generate more support more broadly. All of us who participated in that community engagement team felt good about it.

Early groundwork is critical for passing a millage increase.

Julia: In general, what lessons would you share with fellow library directors who are contemplating a referendum? What should they know?

Lisa: I've actually been a director at three different libraries now, and I have passed a millage at each of those. I've learned through those experiences that the most critical thing is early groundwork. Get out there. Meet people in the community. Find out what their wants and needs are. Start to educate them about not just what your library does but what your library might be able to do, what your aspirations are, what the potential is for what a library can be. If it's not there, and you need it to be better, if there are financial needs, start talking about them way before you plan to go to the ballot box.

Share with the community what the Library's role is. One of the things we worked on with the new brand Ivy helped us create was increasing the Library's visibility in the community.

We have a bookmobile, and one of the things we did following the strategic plan was to rebrand the bookmobile. Our bookmobile is very visible and very well-loved. People got really excited about its new look--it was very fun and exciting and kid-friendly.

We changed our newsletter from a classy publication packed with information solely about events to a tabloid-sized newspaper that not only has events but also talks about our services and other news. One of the things we learned from our community conversations was that people don't feel as if they have an idea of what's going on locally, and we were trying to fill that need and at the same time tell people who we are. Again, increasing our visibility in every single way we could.

I think executive interviews told those "movers and shakers" that the Library was interested in improving and playing a larger role in the community.

All of these things together are important.

The strategic plan gave us a road map of what we needed to do to make our community see that we were listening.

We've done a number of pieces of the plan now--it's a five-year plan. We're in year three, and passing the millage was one of those things. We've made a lot of strides in the plan, and we have some more things we want to do. We've made progress and people can see that we've made progress and we're serious. All of these things need to be done before you go out for a millage increase.

The last thing is to get a very good team of people behind you when you do get on the ballot. That citizens' committee of really capable people who are committed and who will work for you to get the word out is very important.

Rebranding reconnects the Library to the community.

Pam: You mentioned the rebrand. The research, I know, is very important. Tell us a bit about the rebranding process and receptiveness of your community to the new brand.

Lisa: I think the community was very receptive.  We've been making a lot of changes in general here after I came on board, and people seem to be really excited about the Library becoming a more vibrant place--not that it wasn't before, but it became more visible.

The old brand was very sophisticated and adult-looking and around for more than 15 years. People were used to it. People were comfortable with it. We initially launched the idea of rebranding at our staff in-service day, and the staff were not very receptive to the idea of changing. They felt the old brand represented them. And it did it well for a very long time. But they have now embraced the plan, and we have the full backing of our staff to our new look. Everyone has new branded T-shirts and love it! We just took our picture with the bookmobile at this year's in-service day a couple of weeks ago. It's made a big impact.

We also changed our newsletter and its name. People love the new newsletter! I think it contributed to the buy-in.

Pam: A lot of communities are losing their community newspapers and libraries are stepping into that role. It is gratifying to hear you're successful. 

Lisa: We just launched our first community edition of the newsletter this summer. We've expanded it from an 8-page publication to a 12-page publication. We've been talking to partners across the community about adding their information. Now we have community-wide events and there is a big spread of all the local community parks.

Fundraise, then fundraise some more.

Pam: What's ahead for Ypsilanti District Library?

Lisa: We are working on this new branch in Superior Township. We had a little bit of a snag, and we may not break ground until Spring 2020. We have an architect and construction manager at the ready and should open by the end of 2020. We are working on a capital campaign to raise money in addition to our millage money because construction costs have been going steadily up. We want to make this building as much as we can, and the more money we raise the more we will be able to do.

Also, we're working on a space utilization study for our other two facilities which have been in their current configurations for about 17 years. We know there are some things not as efficient, and it is necessary to give our community what it needs now and also in the future. We're looking for more meeting space, more staff areas, more display space.

Pam: Thank you for your time. It's great to hear about your successes.

Lisa: Thank you, Ivy for the strategic plan! It's what we needed.

Ivy Takeaways

Pam: Executive interviews are so important. Some think a third-party is needed to get more objective information; however, the relationships that can be built by the director are so important.

Julia: It seems that the importance of a third-party conducting those interviews would be more so for board or trustee interviews. It sounds like most of the value Lisa got out of it was from establishing the relationships--less about what they had to say and more about how they connected on a personal level.

Pam: I love the fact that she was so committed to the process--the engagement with her staff and also that she listened and used what she heard, i.e., the community college and research, to the Library's advantage in the subsequent referendum.

Julia: When we're wearing our market hats rather than our library hats, we are always talking about collecting stories to show value, to paint a picture, to be remembered.

Pam: It's also interesting that a lot of libraries are turning away from newsletters, largely because people "don't read". And yet, the Library has a tremendous opportunity, albeit onerous, of being the collector and disseminator of community information.

Julia: It feels like a natural fit for the Library as a trusted source, but at the same time, it does feel like scope creep.  I'm torn if it is a natural fit but given what the situation may be in that community, it sounds beneficial.

Pam: I agree with you in regard to scope creep, but libraries are already doing digital publishing for oral histories, inviting people to use technology, and collecting artifacts. It is a huge responsibility.

Julia: I wonder if Ypsilanti has monetized the newsletter. Lisa mentioned advertising events. That sounds like an opportunity. I think the word has a different meaning for her. But I was struck by her description of the old newsletters as "classy" and the old brand as being "sophisticated and adult".  I'm excited for them that there is a new brand which seems more friendly and approachable.

Pam: It feels very dynamic in keeping with the nickname "Ypsi". It is a diverse community and a community that has seen its way through hard times. Exciting things are happening such as rediscovering neighborhoods and small businesses are popping up here and there. The new brand projects a spirit of optimism and forward-thinking.

Julia: Along with the new brandmark there is a new tagline that you developed for them which is "Ask Why". I know there was some back and forth about the letter Y versus Why, and what they landed on was "Ask Why". It is an invitation to come into the library and find the answers or for entertainment. We actually have a blog on [our] website about the tagline.

Pam/Julia:  We can bring Lisa back to discuss millage since she has actively participated in three millage increases.  She can be the "Millage Queen"!

Advancing America's Libraries Podcast episode with Lisa Hoenig, Ypsilanti District Library

Meet our Guest: Lisa Hoenig

As Director of the Wixom Public Library from 2006-2011, Lisa coordinated many improvements, including a much-loved Children's Department renovation with an animal and alphabet theme. Under her supervision, the Library more than doubled its computing capacity and nearly doubled its circulation. 

From 2011-2015 Lisa served as Director of the Redford Township District Library, securing public support and a stable base of funding. 

Lisa currently serves as Director of Ypsilanti District Library, where she led a successful millage campaign to provide for a long-overdue branch in Superior Township.    

She is passionate about community building, intellectual freedom, and libraries for all. She enjoys animals and the outdoors, playing golf and riding horses. After 25 years of commuting, Lisa is thrilled to be giving back to the community where she lives!

Connect with Lisa Hoenig on LinkedIn