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Public Library District Toolkit: Strategies to Assure your Library’s Legal and Financial Stability

Good, Better, Best: An Introduction to Library Governance & Funding in New York State and Your Library’s Options for Success 

New York State Education Law clearly defines the types of public libraries and allowable, associated funding mechanisms. However, the realities of chartered services areas, historic funding models and local politics have often presented current library leaders with challenges for long-term sustainability. In this section of the toolkit you will find the basic building blocks that make up the legal options for library governance and funding in New York State. There are a continuum of options in our state that one could describe as “good, better, best.” This speaks to the fact that some libraries’ situation may be precarious, others may be good enough for the time being, and still more provide examples of stronger models that can provide more stability and sustainability.

Types of Public Libraries

There are four types of public libraries in New York State: association, municipal, school district (standalone or joint), and special district (standalone or consolidated). Trustees and community leaders are quite often confused about the legal structure of their community library and the laws that govern them. Considering the fact that each of these library types has several variations, it is critical for all associated with the governance of the library to clearly understand their particular configuration.

An association library is a private not-for-profit educational corporation established by the members of the association and chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. It can contract with a unit of local government to provide library service to the residents of that jurisdiction. In legal terms, this contract may be written, oral or implied; but it always exists. Though association libraries are considered “private” and not subject to some of the laws and restrictions of true public libraries, they are generally supported by public funds and must always keep transparency and accountability in mind as they make decisions. In addition to Education Law such libraries are subject to some aspects of the New York State Not-for-Profit Corporation Lawexternal link opens in a new window.

municipal library is formed either by a vote of the governing body of a municipality (village, town, city, or county) or by a public referendum to serve the residents of the municipality. The library is an independent not-for-profit educational corporate entity, chartered by the New York State Board of Regents, and technically not dependent upon the municipal government. However, the board of trustees is appointed by the municipality, which is responsible for the appropriate funding of the library and is not obligated to fully approve the library board’s request for appropriations. The library is subject to all the laws applicable to public institutions in the state.

school district public library is organized to serve the residents who live within the boundaries of a given school district (hence the name). The library board is elected, and the budget approved, by the district voters. The library and the library board are independent of the school district and the school board. However, the school district is responsible for the collection of taxes and for the issuance of municipal bonds for construction on the library’s behalf.

The separation of powers between local boards of education and school district library boards is detailed in Education Law § 260external link opens in a new window (7)-(11).

special district library is created by a special act of the State Legislature combined with a local public vote to serve all or part of one or more municipalities or districts as defined by its enabling legislation. The trustees are elected, and the budget approved, by the voters of the special district [1]. The library and library board are independent of the municipalities or districts within its service area. However, the municipality, or sometimes a school district, is responsible for the collection of taxes and for the issuance of municipal bonds for construction on the library’s behalf. Each of these libraries is somewhat unique but all are considered “public” insofar as adherence to state law. (From the Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State)

To better understand the differences between each type of library refer to Libraries by Type chart. 

1. There are a few “legacy” special districts whose budget is approved by a Town Board. However, all recent special districts are subject to public vote on their budget.

Challenges for Association and Municipal Public Libraries

Public libraries in New York serve diverse communities in a variety of ways. Their legal structures vary considerably, even within the standard library types. Most were first established as private not-for-profit corporations that depended upon donations or subscriptions. Many of these libraries eventually rechartered to become municipal libraries in order to benefit from public support. These libraries gave up their independence in return for reliable funding. History has shown that neither approach has proven to provide for stable funding in the past half century for the majority of Association or Municipal Public Libraries in our state.

Municipal Public Libraries:

A municipal public library is one that is formed by a municipal entity such as a village, town, city, or county. Often this was the result of an Association Library in the past requesting the local government to assume responsibility for the Library in return for stable funding and capital improvements.

Traditionally, municipal libraries receive their funding through an appropriation by the municipality in which they are located. The appropriation shows up as a line item in the village, town, city, or county budget. Trustees of municipal public libraries are appointed by the local village or town board, the city council, or the county legislature. Though the library is an independent entity, its reliance on funding by the municipality and method of trustee selection greatly impacts its ability to self-govern. Quite often in difficult times the library is one of the first places the municipality looks to for savings; as well as one of the last to see the restoration of budget cuts. Municipal library trustees can find themselves caught between their allegiance to the library and the municipality who appointed them to that position. Municipal libraries can also find themselves targets for budget reductions after an election as newly elected officials get their feet under them and may not recognize the value of the library to the community right away.

Municipal public libraries may place funding propositions on a municipal ballot (Chapter 414) or a school district ballot to stabilize their annual funding. However, they have no mechanism for the public election of trustees. Therefore, municipal public libraries do not normally exercise the independence, stability and sustainability necessary to maintain high quality public library services in good times and bad.

A municipal library can become a public library district by re-chartering as a School District Joint School District Public Library or as a Special or Consolidated District Public Library.

Association Libraries:

The oldest type of public library, Association Libraries are independent, “private” organizations chartered by the New York State Board of Regents that are not a governmental entity such as a municipal or school district public library. Because they are not technically public entities, Association Libraries are not subject to a number of laws governing true “public” libraries, including civil service and municipal finance laws. They are considered “501(c)3 not-for- profit” organizations by the IRS. Nearly half of the 756 public libraries in New York State are Association Libraries.

Generally, Association Libraries provide library services to their chartered service areas under the terms of a contract (either written or implied) with one or more municipalities they are chartered to serve; and receive operating funds through those contracts. Historically, the trustees of the library acted as the Association, generating self-perpetuating boards of trustees. Many association libraries are still governed in this manner while others have pursued a more democratic process for trustee selection.

Membership in the Association and the process for electing trustees are defined in the library’s charter or in the official bylaws. Often association members are defined as being all library-card holders and, if 18 years of age, are eligible to vote for trustees at the Annual Meeting of the Association. A number of libraries enable all registered voters of the area chartered to serve to participate in the election of trustees.

An Association Library can become a public library district by re-chartering as a School District Public Library or, a Special District Public Library or by joining forces with a neighboring district library as a Joint School District or Consolidated District Public Library through merger or consolidation.

In addition, Association Libraries that choose to retain their “private” status may consider the Association Library District model by placing funding propositions on a municipal ballot (Chapter 414) or a school district ballot to stabilize their annual funding and allowing for the public election of trustees. To find a more thorough description of these three models, click on the appropriate link above for each one.

Viable Strategies for Financial Stability

Over the past century New York State law has provided ways for public libraries to reach out directly to the public they serve for support. This guide provides information regarding the various legal strategies that New York’s public libraries use to secure the necessary funding to fulfill their mission. Every strategy is based on the proven premise that public libraries with direct public support are able to thrive, grow and provide the services their community needs to meet the challenges of today.

Experience has shown that School District Joint School District and Special or Consolidated District Public Libraries are the most successful legal structures for long-term stability and sustainability for public libraries in our state. Transition to these “district models” require considerable effort on the part of the library, both before and after a successful vote. That said, libraries that have gone through the process universally report that the library and community have benefited greatly as a result of this process. Nonetheless, many libraries are unable or reluctant to take such a dramatic step but still seek means to stabilize their funding. Below are additional approaches for Association or Municipal libraries seeking such solutions. All these options are dealt with in detail further on in this Guide.

Additional Strategies for Association Libraries:

The Board of Regents has acknowledged that other organizational models, such as the Association Library District model, may share the primary attributes of a public library district that provide for such stability and sustainability and therefore reap many of its benefits. As defined by the New York State Education Department, this would require an Association Library to: (a) publicly elect its Board of Trustees (b) secure a significant portion of its operating revenue through a public budget vote (i.e. through funding propositions on a municipal ballot (Chapter 414) or a school district ballot); and (c) ensure financial accountability by presenting annually to appropriate funding agencies, and to the public, a written budget which would enable the library to meet or exceed the minimum standardsexternal link opens in a new window and to carry out its long-range plan of service.

In many cases Association libraries have begun their search for financial and political stability through approaches that should be considered as “first steps”. These strategies are based on public votes on the library budget through either Chapter 414 municipal ballot votes or Ed. Law 259 (1) school district ballot votes. However, without combining this step with the public election of its Board of Trustees libraries in this scenario may be confronted with resistance from the public who are uncomfortable with a library board that is not publicly elected overseeing publicly designated funds. Further information is detailed later in this Guide.

Additional Strategies for Municipal Libraries:

The most prevalent strategy for short term financial stability for municipal libraries is through Education Law 259(1)(b)external link opens in a new window, popularly referred to as a “Chapter 414 vote”. In brief, this requires the local municipality to place a library funding proposition on the annual municipal ballot. In order to accomplish this the library is required to seek support from the community through a rigorous petition process. Similar to Association libraries, Municipal libraries may also petition their local school district to place a funding proposition on the annual school budget ballot.

Contracts with Unserved Areas:

A number of libraries in New York find themselves in close proximity to large unserved/untaxed areas whose residents regularly use their library but do not financially support it. Education Commissioner’s Regulation 90.3external link opens in a new window does require libraries to provide service to “unserved” areas, but allows for reasonable restrictions when particular conditions are met. When the neighboring unserved area has a significant population making use of library services most libraries seek avenues of relief and support from those non- library taxpayers.

A strategy used occasionally is to contract with neighboring school districts or municipalities for public library service, rather than petition for a “414” or “259(1)” vote. This process is permitted under New York State Education Law Section 256external link opens in a new window. Though a means to gain financial support for services to previously untaxed patrons, in most cases this approach is not considered a “continuing appropriation,” so cannot be relied upon for stable, long term funding. At best, it can be a step toward the inclusion of this area into a more permanent relationship with the library.

Generally, such contracts are governed under the regional Library System’s Resource Sharing Code in order to assure equity within the region and avoid deal making between individual libraries and school districts. In many cases the contract is managed by the library system, on behalf of several libraries surrounding the unserved area. Check with your Library System for guidance.

Consolidating and Merging Libraries

Before finalizing a plan to transition to a public library district form of governance and funding, or pursuing a municipal ballot vote (414) or school district ballot vote (259(1)) when multiple libraries are located within that jurisdiction, libraries are urged to consider the option of merging or consolidating with other libraries in the area. Consolidation or merging may be advantageous when there are two or more libraries situated within a single school district or a township or geographic boundary that just makes sense for the greater community (i.e. county, region). In these cases, rather than have each library continue to serve a portion of the school district or township or region, it may make sense to form a single administrative structure to run both libraries. Though challenging to the existing status quo, this simplifies funding and governance and may make it easier for voters to understand the library structure. It also ensures that people within the township or school district are uniformly taxed for library services and avoids duplication of costs. Merging libraries does not necessarily mean that one of the library outlets will close. It simply means that there will be a single governance and funding structure. There are several examples where libraries in New York State have successfully merged and continue to operate multiple outlets. For more information refer to the Commentary on Consolidating and Merging Libraries.