October 30, 2014

Multnomah County to Put Two Major Library Measures on Ballot in Short Time Span

The complex quest of the Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, to resolve its long-term funding issues has now bifurcated.

On Thursday, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to place on the ballot in May a proposal to renew, for three years, the library’s levy at its current rate. In addition, the board resolved to put an independent library district measure before the voters in November.

The two-pronged approach, difficult as it may be, represents a compromise.

“Given our options this is the best path forward, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy,” said Vailey Oehlke, the library’s director.

The initial plan had envisioned putting the district to an all-or-nothing vote in May. But there was concern that voting in May on the district measure, with its concomitant tax hike, would have been too risky, given the economic climate. Polls had indicated the measure might be defeated.

If that defeat were to happen, the library’s budget would have had a huge hole blown into its side: there would have been no district and no levy, since the current levy expires in June. And the levy, inadequate as it may be, provides about 66 percent of the library’s budget.

The concern about the prospects for passage of an independent district were so high, that county Chair Jeff Cogen had initially proposed delaying consideration of the measure until 2014.

But library supporters did not want to wait that long and felt with a heavier voter turnout in November and possibly a better economic climate the measure could pass then.

So, the approach approved this week will allow the library to ensure, first, that its present levy will be extended in May (which is likely given the history of levy votes), and then, put the district to a vote in November. If the latter measure fails, the levy will still be in place.

The board recognized Thursday that “a levy renewal at the current rate will not provide sufficient funding to maintain current library services.” So, it also approved a front-loaded, one-time infusion of $10 million in county funds to supplement the levy funding over the next three years (this is in addition to the county normal contribution to the library’s budget — $14.9 million in FY12/13). If the district votes passes in November, there would likely be some discussion about the disposition of this $10 million.

But even if the levy is approved and the county infuses an extra $10 million, it will not be enough money, according to Oehlke. The revenue from the levy, which was last approved in 2006, has steadily contracted because of a property tax cap, and revenue now stands at its lowest point in the current five-year cycle.

“I am much happier with this timeline. I think it’s a good compromise, but, of course, it’s a little bittersweet because we still have to reduce our expenditures by 10 percent and reduce staffing,” Oehlke said.

This could change if the district is approved in November, and all agree that “the best long-term funding solution for the library is the formation of an independent library district,” the board’s resolution reads.

A library district would create a dedicated, permanent source of funding for the library. By Oregon state law, a district is a municipal corporation that functions as an independent taxing entity. There are presently 25 library districts in Oregon

The big question is will voters support two major library issues on the ballot in such a short period, particularly when the district vote would likely increase the property tax levy from 89 cents per $1000 of assessed value to about $1.18.

“It will definitely require a lot of education and discussion on the part of people campaigning on this,” Oehlke said.  “The library district in and of itself was a complex thing to explain to people, so there are these communication hurdles we have to get past,” she said.

However, all the discussion over the past few months about the library and its finances have been helpful. “It is really heightening people’s awareness,” Oehlke said.

The Portland Tribune reported that library supporters packed the county commissioners’ boardroom Thursday to support the two-step approach.

“There is tremendous passion in this room for libraries,” Cogen said according to the Tribune. “That’s going to be our ace in the hole as we move forward here.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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