February 6, 2016

Multnomah County Puts Library District on the Ballot

Voters in Multnomah County, OR, will consider a proposal to form a permanent library district this fall.

The Multnomah County Library has been struggling financially because of the impact of a local property tax cap and lower contributions from the county’s general fund. The library is the largest in Oregon and it serves over 35,000 people daily.

The proposal to create a new library district would provide an alternative funding method to replace the tax levy.

After listening to testimony from residents who supported the library at a July 31 public hearing, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved putting the $65 million measure to a vote this fall, according to The Willamette Weekly. (As LJ reported, they’d first resolved to do so back in January.)

“I don’t want to kid ya, this is going to be a very difficult campaign,” County Chair Jeff Cogen said during the Aug. 2 vote, according to The Willamette Weekly. “But I believe that we will do what we have long wanted to do, which is provide adequate and stable funding for the library. So I’m voting yes.”

The Multnomah County Library has been struggling financially because of the impact of a local property tax cap and lower contributions from the county’s general fund.

As LJ reported, the library got a reprieve from more severe cuts in May when voters approved renewing a three-year tax levy of 89 cents per $1,00 of assessed property valuation, which would raise about $32.6 million in 2012-13, $34.5 million in 2013-14 and $36.5 million in 2014-15. The vote was 82.3 percent in favor and 17.7 percent against it.

The library had to close on Mondays at its 19 library branches starting in July. The library system also cut 76 full-and part-time positions and reduced the book budget by $1 million, according to The Oregonian. The library is the largest in Oregon and it serves over 35,000 people daily.

Some local residents were surprised by the library’s Monday closures. David Sparks, a father of four that visits the library weekly, told the Oregonian that he was disappointed the May vote did not keep the library open seven days a week

The closure also had other impacts on the Multnomah County Library as well. Visitors to the Belmont Library jumped 50 percent on Tuesdays, and library patrons have been getting items on hold a little later than usual at the Holgate library, according to the Oregonian.

Library director Vailey Oehkle told the Oregonian that the library with continue to help patrons with the transition. “I really acknowledge the inconvenience, the disappointment,” she said. “We’re equally disappointed.”

As reported by Library Journal back in November, creating a new library district would add “another layer of risk” to the district’s current funding model and it could be difficult to pass another new property tax. Portland’s November ballot also includes a vote on a tax measure that would restore funding to elementary school arts and music programs.

The City of Portland’s Office of Management and Finance recently issued a budget impact brief that said creating a separate library district would financially harm the city by costing $7 million a year in property taxes and cut the city’s children’s levy, according to the Willamette Weekly. The city brief also said the tax increase from the new library district will go to supplant funding from Multnomah’s General Fund, not increase the library’s budget.”

Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen called the city’s tone “chutzpah,” according to the Willamette Weekly, since Portland’s urban renewal district has reduced the county’s general fund budgets.

The county and library officials ran an online survey asking for public input on whether to keep the current service or restore it through increasing the library tax levy or creating a new library district.  About 20,000 people visited the survey; 61.5 percent said they would support the library district, 13.1 percent said they would support increasing the tax levy to support the library and 25.4 percent said they would support maintain the current tax levy and limited library service.






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