For most voters, primary elections are rarely blockbusters. But in Hatboro, a borough of about 7,400 people, more than 1,000 cast ballots on a new tax last week, one that would help fund the town’s historic library, the third oldest in the state.
The referendum, the only one on ballots in Montgomery County in this election, led to a victory for library backers by just 14 votes on May 21 — 512-498, according to county election data. Proponents of the Union Library Company of Hatboro, who stand on both sides of the political aisle, are emboldened by the victory, which they say provides a more sustainable funding solution for the library.
Naysayers bemoan the addition of another tax regardless of what it benefits. And the divide is shadowed by a glitch in the new voting machines purchased by Montgomery County, an error that this week forced a manual recount of 1,000 ballots from Hatboro that could change the outcome of this tight race.
The machines debuted last week, part of the county’s compliance with state-mandated upgrades. Poll workers in Hatboro noticed that some of the ballots weren’t being counted properly due to a “programming error” made by a technician from the vendor, according to county spokesperson John Corcoran. The new results could come as soon as Friday afternoon.
Michael Celec, the library’s director, took this latest development in stride. For him, it’s another episode in a yearlong saga to guarantee the institution’s future, 12 months of sweat equity and, predictably for a librarian, research.
“It’s a significant thing that we were asking people to do, and it wasn’t something that we took lightly,” Celec said. "In any election, you’re risking something.
“You can’t read voters’ minds, and you can’t force them to listen to you,” he added. “We listened to people who had doubts, and we answered them, and I think we had a good answer for everything.”
The narrowly approved referendum adds a 0.55 mill tax on property values that replaces yearly allocations to the library in the municipal budget. Celec estimated that the tax will generate $212,000 in its first year, at an average cost of about $75 per household.
By comparison, the library was allotted $83,000 by the borough in its most recent budget. That wasn’t enough, Celec said, to maintain the facility, a Civil War-era building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, while also bringing the programming and collections it offers into the current era. Relying on the borough council’s budgetary process troubled him.
“While we have a good relationship with this council, the library board and I don’t control who might get elected next time,” Celec said. “If they don’t like us, or something is going badly in an area they can’t predict, it can become tempting to start cutting from the library.”
In April 2018, he approached council members with the idea of adding a tax specifically for the library. They were cool to the idea, telling him it would be more effective if the new tax came through a referendum. They encouraged him to do the research. So he did.
The “Hatboro Library Yes Committee” was formed and propped up by volunteers, including Celec, who went door-to-door seeking signatures for a petition to add the question to the primary ballot. The group needed 108, but got 263, he said.
Hatboro Mayor Nancy Guenst, a Democrat and former library board member, was an early and vocal supporter of the referendum question.
“It’s the gem of our town, and every time they need to get funding from Hatboro, they have to beg, borrow, and steal to have money to run the place,” Guenst said. “This is the same way we fund the fire company; why shouldn’t we share the burden for the library?”
The reception, however, was not universally positive. Some residents fired back that they didn’t use the library enough to warrant paying for it. Others took to town-focused Facebook pages, pushing Celec and his colleagues to pursue grant money rather than lobbing the cost onto taxpayers.
One critic, Richard Seeds Jr., in a lengthy comment on the “Voices of Hatboro” page, wrote that he was researching “cost containment strategies” related to the referendum to help lessen the burden on taxpayers. Seeds, himself on the ballot last week as a Republican candidate for borough council, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Celec, for his part, took a pragmatic approach to the narrow margin.
“The people that voted yes were voting yes for the library, and the people that voted no were voting no to a tax increase,” he said. “So that’s two very different ways of thinking about what was happening. There was no sentiment of ‘We hate the library.’”
Bill Tompkins, a former borough council president and current chairman of the Hatboro Republican Organization, agreed.