Public Library District Questions and Answers

This Q&A document is formatted to provide short concise answers to frequently asked questions about Public Library Districts. More detailed information on each of the questions and answers is available within the "Public Library Districts How-To Kit."

  1. What is a public library district?
  2. Why does Board of Regents policy encourage libraries to become public library districts?
  3. How many types of public library districts are there?
  4. How does a library become a School District Public Library?
  5. Is a School District Public Library controlled by the school district?
  6. Who collects taxes for a School District Public Library?
  7. Can a School District Public Library serve more than one school district?
  8. How are trustees of a School District Public Library determined?
  9. Can school district or town board members or other public officials serve on the boards of public library districts?
  10. How does a library become a Special Legislative District Public Library?
  11. How are the boundaries (service areas) of a Special Legislative District Public Library determined?
  12. How are trustees of a Special Legislative District Public Library determined?
  13. Is a "home rule" message necessary to create a Special Legislative District Public Library?
  14. Who collects taxes for a Special Legislative District Public Library?
  15. Who covers shortfalls in tax collections for a School District Public Library or a Special Legislative District Public Library?
  16. Can a public library district bond for capital projects?
  17. What happens if the vote to create a public library district is approved by voters?
  18. What happens if the vote to create a public library district is rejected by voters?
  19. How long does it take to become a public library district?
  20. How much does it cost to create a public library district?
  21. Once approved by voters can tax support for a public library district be reduced?
  22. How does a library become an Association Library District?
  23. How are trustees of an Association Library District determined?
  24. What happens to employees of a library when it is replaced by a new public library district?
  25. Is a new public library district automatically tax-exempt?
  26. How can a public library district invest its surplus moneys?
  27. Where can I obtain more information on becoming a public library district?

1. What is a public library district?

A public library district can be defined as any public library that derives more than 60% of its operating revenue from a public referendum and has publicly elected trustees.

2. Why does Board of Regents policy encourage libraries to become public library districts?

Data shows that libraries that have a public vote on their budgets are funded at a per-capita level that is twice as high as those that depend on appropriations from municipalities. In addition, public referenda on public library budgets consistently pass at a rate that is higher than 90%. Furthermore this type of funding provides financial stability because once approved by voters, the library's budget cannot be reduced unless the library board requests a decrease in funding. In addition, elected library boards allow taxpayers to determine the makeup of the policymaking library board.

3. How many types of public library districts are there?

The two most common types of public library districts are School District Public Libraries and Special Legislative District Public Libraries. Association Libraries may qualify as a public library district if their bylaws provide for an elected board and they derive more that 60% of their operating revenue from a public referendum. See: Types of Libraries -- A Comparison

4. How does a library become a School District Public Library?

To form a School District Public Library a petition signed by at least 25 voters within a school district is submitted to a school board requesting that a proposition be placed before the voters to create a School District Public Library. The school board must comply and either place propositions to create and fund a public library and elect trustees before voters at its next annual election or schedule a special election for that purpose. If the propositions pass, the newly elected library board applies for a charter from the Board of Regents. The service area of a School District Public Library must mirror the boundaries of the school district. See: Steps for Creating a School District Public Library

5. Is a School District Public Library controlled by the school district?

No. A School District Public Library is an independently chartered entity governed by the elected library board and is not controlled by the school district. The law requires that the school district provide certain services on behalf of the School District Public Library but the school district has no say in its operations or funding.

6. Who collects taxes for a School District Public Library?

Taxes approved by voters for the operation of a School District Public Library are collected in the same manner as tax money to support the school district. If the school district collects its own taxes, then it must collect taxes on behalf of the School District Public Library and turn those funds over to the library board. Taxes for a School District Public Library will show up as a separate line on property tax bills. School Districts have a legal obligation to cover operating expenses of a newly created School District Public Library until the first library taxes approved by voters are collected.

7. Can a School District Public Library serve more than one school district?

No. The service area of a School District Public Library can only encompass one school district.

8. How are trustees of a School District Public Library determined?

The number of trustees of a School District Public Library can range from 5 to 15 and terms of office can range from 3 to 5 years.  All registered voters within the school district are eligible to run for a seat on the library board.  To be eligible for election, each candidate must submit a petition signed by either 25 registered voters within the school district or 2% of the number of people who voted in the last school district election, whichever is greater.

9. Can school district or town board members or other public officials serve on the boards of public library districts?

Any registered voter within the School District Public Library or a Special Legislative District Public Library service area is eligible to serve on the library board provided they collect the required number of signatures to be placed on the ballot and receive enough votes to serve.

10. How does a library become a Special Legislative District Public Library?

In order to form a Special Legislative District Public Library a bill must be passed by the State legislature and signed into law by the Governor authorizing a local election to create and fund the library district and elect trustees. The State bill specifies the area to be served, the number of trustees as well as terms of office, the election process and other characteristics of the proposed district. See: Steps for Creating a Special Legislative District Public Library

11. How are the boundaries (service areas) of a Special Legislative District Public Library determined?

For the most part, the service area of a Special Legislative District Public Library can be freely drawn to mirror library usage patterns. District boundaries can encompass more than one town or school district or portions of towns and/or school districts to be served but must be "mappable" -- that is, they should not split census blocks. The proposed boundaries of the district are spelled out within the State legislation that authorizes the local election to create the district and should be reviewed in advance by the New York State Library's Division of Library Development. Registered voters within the proposed boundaries of the district will be eligible to vote at the local election to create and fund the district.

12. How are trustees of a Special Legislative District Public Library determined?

The number of trustees of a Special Legislative District Public Library, terms of office and the nomination process for library board candidates are specified within the State legislation that authorizes the local election to create and fund the library district.  All registered voters within the library district are eligible for election to the library board.

13. Is a "home rule" message necessary to create a Special Legislative District Public Library?

"Home Rule" is provided for by the State constitution. Simply put, it requires that any legislation to be considered by the State legislature that will affect local municipal finances must be endorsed by affected local municipalities. A "home rule" message usually takes the form of a resolution by a town, village or county board of supervisors that they endorse or at least do not oppose the proposed legislation. Technically, library district legislation is considered educational and as such by law is not subject to "home rule" review. However, local state legislators may still want to know if municipalities within their district have any objections to the library legislation before they introduce a bill to create a library district. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that any attempt to create a public library district be discussed in advance with local municipal officials to determine if there are any major objections.

14. Who collects taxes for a Special Legislative District Public Library?

Municipalities within the district collect taxes approved by voters for the operation of a Special Legislative District Public Library. In some cases, this is a county or even multiple counties depending on the service area of the district. In other cases, a town or multiple towns may collect taxes if the district service area spans more than one. In either case, once the taxes are collected they are turned over to the library board. Taxes for a Special Legislative District Public Library will show up as a separate line on property tax bills. It should be noted that no municipality or school district has legal responsibility for covering the operating expenses of a newly created Special Legislative District Public Library until its first taxes are collected. Libraries making the transition to this type of district should have plans for covering a potential gap in revenue. See: Collecting Taxes

15. Who covers shortfalls in tax collections for a School District Public Library or a Special Legislative District Public Library?

When voters approve a dollar amount for a School District or Special Legislative District Public Library, the whole amount should be paid over to the library regardless of shortfalls in tax collections. Shortfalls are covered by the tax collecting body that also has authority to foreclose on properties. This is normally a county, town or school district.

16. Can a public library district bond for capital projects?

Both a School District Public Library and a Special Legislative District Public Library are able to place propositions before voters authorizing bonding for capital projects. If the School District Public Library bonding proposition passes, the school district must bond for the authorized amount. The State legislation that authorizes the local election to create a Special Legislative District Public Library should specify the municipality that will issue bonds on behalf of the district. If voters approve a bonding proposition for a Special Legislative District Public Library, the municipality specified in the State legislation will issue bonds on behalf of the district. Association Library Districts cannot place bonding propositions on the public ballot. They do, however, have the option of pursuing the ability to bond through the NYS Dormitory Authority.

17. What happens if the vote to create a public library district is approved by voters?

Once the creation of a School District or Special Legislative District Public Library is approved by voters, the newly elected board of trustees must meet and within 30 days and file paperwork with the Board of Regents to apply for a charter and registration. Once the new library district is chartered and registered, the board of trustees of the library being replaced must file paperwork to formally dissolve and transfer its assets to the new library district. Upon receiving its charter and registration, the new library district board becomes the policy making body and is in charge of the library. The library board being replaced no longer has a policy making role but may continue to meet to follow-through with the dissolution and asset transfer process. See: After the Vote: A Checklist

18. What happens if the vote to create a public library district is rejected by voters?

If a vote to create a public library district to replace an existing library is rejected by voters, the existing library continues to operate and must find other means of financial support. This is why it is extremely important for a library to discuss the process in advance with local municipal officials to ensure that funding for the library will continue in the event the vote to create and fund the new district fails.

19. How long does it take to become a public library district?

It is recommended that the libraries begin the planning to create a public library district at least a year in advance of the vote. The library board should discuss and resolve critical issues regarding the disposition of the library's existing endowment and or facilities; funding to be requested for the new district; governance details; level of support by local municipal and/or school officials; the petition process to create the district; and strategies for the education and advocacy campaigns that will inform and encourage voters to vote in favor of creating the new district. The timeline should include several months to implement the education and advocacy campaigns. If a Special Legislative District Public Library is being created, time must also be budgeted for the introduction and passage of the State legislation that will authorize the local election to create the district.

20. How much does it cost to create a public library district?

The cost of creating a public library district can vary greatly. Potential expenses may include: hiring specialized expertise (marketing, public relations and/or library consultants); legal fees; printing & distribution of educational and advocacy materials; media advertising; election expenses; and charter application fees. It is not always necessary to hire outside consultants or to spend considerable sums on promotional and advocacy materials and media advertising. Each situation is different and library boards should discuss the need for these services before embarking on the effort to create a public library district and establish a budget for the process accordingly.

21. Once approved by voters can tax support for a public library district be reduced?

Once voters approve a funding level for a School District Public Library or a Special Legislative District Public Library, the amount cannot be reduced unless the library board seeks a reduction at a subsequent election.

22. How does a library become an Association Library District?

An Association Library can be considered a public library district if it receives more than 60% of its operating revenue via public ballot and it has a process that enables eligible voters within its service area to elect trustees. Options available for a public budget vote include placing funding propositions on either a school district ballot or a municipal ballot as provided for by Section 259 of New York State Education Law.

23. How are trustees of an Association Library District determined?

The number of trustees of an Association Library District can range from 5 to 25.  The number of trustees and terms of office are specified within the library’s charter. The bylaws of an Association Library District must specify a process for nominating and electing trustees that provides all eligible voters within the library’s service area to run for a seat on the library board and to vote at an annual meeting to elect trustees.

24. What happens to employees of a library when it is replaced by a new public library district?

In most cases, the employees will automatically become employees of the new library district under the same terms and conditions of employment. This normally means that salaries, benefits and seniority remain unchanged. Since public library districts are subject to civil service, employee titles may change and subsequent appointments within the library will be governed by civil service rules and regulations. If the chartered population of the new district is greater than the library it is replacing, a higher level of state standards may be required, including education requirements for the director. In these cases, a library district may request a variance for the incumbent director. The variance process must be repeated each year and the library must provide a plan that will ensure that the education standard will be met within a specific time period.

25. Is a new public library district automatically tax-exempt?

Once a new public library district is chartered by the Board of Regents it is automatically state tax exempt.  In addition, because public library districts are generally considered by the IRS to be state or local government entities, they are not required to pay federal income tax.  If asked by a donor or Foundation to provide a tax-exempt number or determination letter to prove its status as a tax-exempt organization, a library may contact the IRS for a letter describing the tax status of government entities.   Information on this can be found on the Affirmation of Your Tax-Exempt Status page on the IRS web site.

In some cases a library may wish to qualify as a 501c3 tax exempt organization under the tax code rather than as a governmental entity.  In this case the new library must file IRS form 1023 in order to obtain a determination from the IRS.

In any case, it is important to note that the federal tax exemption does not automatically transfer from an existing library to a new public library district.

26. How can a public library district invest its surplus moneys?

Public library districts are considered public institutions and therefore are restricted in the types of investments they can make. Comptrollers' Opinion 95-30 discusses investments by public libraries and refers to several relevant laws, regulations and opinions covering this topic.

27. Where can I obtain more information on becoming a public library district?

Libraries seeking more information on becoming a public library district should contact their public library system as well as the New York State Library's Division of Library Development. Other sources of information include libraries that have already made the transition to become a public library district and the New York State Library's Division of Library Development web site.


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Last Updated: July 23, 2009 -- asm [created January 27, 2005]; for questions or comments, contact us