The 11-branch Douglas County Library System (DCLS), OR, is facing closure later this spring after a ballot measure to create an independent tax district was defeated in the November 2016 election. The system, which serves an area the size of the state of Connecticut, has traditionally relied on the county’s allocation of timber revenue from Western Oregon O&C-BLM (Oregon & California Bureau of Land Management) forestlands, which has seen a sharp decline. The distribution that sustained the county through most of the 20th century, at some $50 million per year, had shrunk by 2015 to less than ten percent of that. Money provided by the tax district would have generated about $4 million a year; enough to close the gap and meet the library’s funding needs. Since its rejection, DCLS is actively searching for alternatives to closure.
Without a state sales tax, Oregon’s public libraries rely heavily on local taxes. But because taxes cannot be collected on federal lands, counties with a large proportion of federal forestland are provided with a percentage of their timber revenue instead. Since 1937, the Oregon and California Revested Lands Sustained Yield Management Act allocated 50 percent of O&C-BLM timber receipts to the 18 O&C counties—named for the railroad that once ran through them—scattered throughout western Oregon. As O&C’s largest shareholder, with some 52 percent of its land devoted to timber revenue, Douglas County received about 25 percent of that cut.
For more than half a century, the forestland income was more than adequate to fund county services. However, endangered species protections enacted in the 1990s shrunk the areas that could be legally logged, in turn reducing funding for the counties that depended on that revenue.
In 2000 a safety-net program, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, was established to supplement the missing dollars with federal funds. Originally intended as a stopgap measure, Secure Rural Schools funding continuously decreased over the following 15 years.
The county currently brings in about $8.8 million in property tax revenues, which is spread among core departments such as tax collection, the county treasurer and district attorney, building facilities, and emergency services. Last year, said county commissioner Gary Leif, the county spent approximately $13 million more than it took in. “Luckily the commissioners before me saved close to $40, $50 million dollars just in case this happened,” he told LJ. “So we’re running off of savings.” According to his calculations, Douglas County’s coffers will only cover another three years of services. The library, budgeted at $1.3 million dollars for FY17, could not be sustained out of the county’s general fund.
“The money that we’re trying to cut is from every department we possibly can, and libraries [are] one of those,” Leif explained. “Museums are next. We cut our land department. We’ve cut all kinds of things to where the last thing that we will have to cut is our safety budget—that’s our sheriff’s office. And when that happens, that’s really going to be a big concern.”
VOTERS NIX TAX
In June 2016 the library board, foundation, Friends, and the Save Our Libraries political action committee submitted measure 10-145 to help the library system address its shortfalls. The measure, placed on the November ballot by the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, proposed forming a countywide library district with a permanent maximum tax rate of 44 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value—and immediately saw resistance from a population that objected to new taxes for any reason.
“My hope would be that we could get back into the woods and start getting receipts from our timber,” one voter told the Douglas County News-Review. “I don’t know that that’s going to happen anytime soon, but that would be my preference.”
Another letter to the News-Review editor cited the irrelevance of the library in light of cell phones and home computers. The writer suggested that the main library in Roseburg be turned into a center that can charge for meetings, diverting the needed tax money to services such as police, sheriff, and fire departments.
Yet another decried “liberal-thinking preservationists,” adding that the environmentalists “made their ‘bed’ almost 30 years ago, and now they must face the consequences of their shorted-sighted thinking in the form of reduced support for this proposed library tax.”
Citizens also suggested the system be privatized, or that individual cities could run their own libraries.
Save Our Libraries rallied around the measure, as did the League of Women Voters of Umpqua Valley and countless community members. But although the vote was close, the measure was defeated in November 25,499 to 20,703—a 55 percent majority.
Without enough funding to take the system into the next fiscal year, the smaller ten libraries are slated to close on April 1; the Roseburg Library will close on May 31, at the end of FY16.
This would not be the first time an Oregon library system found itself threatened with closure, according to Oregon State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen. In 1998, Deschutes County needed to take a library district measure to the ballot twice before it passed. Jackson County shuttered all 15 of its branches in 2007 after voters rejected a tax levy; a downsized system reopened six months later under the management of Library Systems & Services, a private for-profit company. In 2010 the Hood River County Library closed when a proposed tax district failed, but came back to the voters with a smaller permanent tax rate that passed. And Josephine County, another O&C funded county (as is Jackson), rejected a tax base increase twice and is currently run by a nonprofit organization, largely dependent on contributions and volunteer labor.
“We’ve seen [library closings] in Oregon before,” Oregon Library Association (OLA) president Elsa Loftis told LJ. However, said Loftis, “I think that the people who are supporting [DCLS] have reason for optimism…. We’ll get it back. But in the interim, we are saddened by their closure.”
Even among the communities served by DCLS, thoughts on how to proceed varied widely. The city of Sutherlin hoped to take over its own branch after the county pulled out, running the library on volunteer labor. The mayor of Myrtle Creek, according to the News-Review, thought that branch would probably close for good. The town of Reedsport—which, along with Roseburg, had passed measure 10-145—hoped to get a proposal for a smaller, local library district on the ballot in May.
As of January, no one had stepped up with an organized solution for the entire system. Leif, the current library liaison, met with the DCLS Friends and fellow commissioner and former liaison Chris Boice in an open public meeting to explore options. All agreed that a board made up of a wide range of stakeholders could best address possible solutions, and on February 1 the Douglas County Board of Commissioners approved the creation of a 19-member Library Futures Task Force. Members include representatives from each of the 11 cities where branches are located; one representative each from the library board, library foundation, and Save Our Libraries; a staff member selected by DCLS director Harold Hayes; an at-large member; a county commissioner; and representatives from both the anti-tax voters and, according to Leif, a member of “what I call the Hell No committee, or the citizens against libraries in general—there are some of those people.”
Leif noted, “One of the reasons why I think that [measure 10-45] failed on the November ballot was because I don’t think they got enough people involved from the other sides. And that’s one thing I wanted to do with the Library Futures task force, is to make sure everybody had a seat at the table so we could really get all eyes on this, instead of just the pro [tax district] eyes.”
The task force has two main goals, said Leif. One is to keep DCLS’s assets—furniture, shelving, computers, books, and other materials—in the county’s possession until a solution can be found. Toward that end, each branch would become a volunteer-run reading room, rather than a lending library. They would offer no checkouts or computer use, as proprietary software contracts and the network are managed by the county—although one option would be to wipe the computers clean and allow each city to install its own software.
Both Loftis and Dahlgreen agree that holding onto the system’s assets will be critical to its future. “We sent a letter to the commissioners…to make the case that we’re hoping they’ll keep the assets of the libraries in stewardship until an alternative way of opening these libraries comes up,” Loftis told LJ. Dahlgreen concurred: “It’s going to be really important to keep the infrastructure in assets intact…. Once you lose [them] it’s really difficult to get them back.”
The second goal will be to figure out another option for DCLS to reopen.
Leif has met with elected officials from every branch city, as well as local school districts, the Douglas Education Service District, and representatives from Umpqua Community College to look at options. Recently the task force has found an ally in Oregon Solutions, an organization devoted to finding sustainable solutions to community-based problems through collaborations among businesses, government, and nonprofits.
At a February 15 meeting, Oregon Solutions representatives were enthusiastic about working with DCLS, said Leif, telling the task force, “We would like a shot at this. This is exactly what we do.” The organization has agreed to conduct a 30-day assessment to see if moving forward is feasible. If so, all parties will work together on a plan over the next six to nine months.
While the task force is considering other models as well, sustainability is a concern, Leif said—which is one reason he is not necessarily in favor of putting the tax district back on the ballot. In a few years Douglas County will likely have to institute a safety levy to ensure that its emergency services are funded, he explained, which would need to be a tax priority in a largely tax-averse county. “Our safety levy is probably a number one priority. I want to make sure when you call 911 there’s somebody on the other end that answers the phone.”
He also feels that staffing libraries with volunteers is not the answer. Josephine County libraries, he said, “were able to jump start their all-volunteer library with some funding from grants and organizations and donations. But what they’re finding out is that works for a small amount of time, but in the big picture volunteers get burnt out, they’re not getting paid, they don’t feel the responsibilities as would a paid worker, and that is hurting them.” (Libraries in the United Kingdom that have turned to volunteer labor in the wake of shrinking budgets, are facing similar challenges.)
Leif would consider a bond levy for the library, he told LJ, and will also look into potential privatization. “We’re trying to come up with solutions, believe me, at every turn. This is one of those new things—we can’t look at a book and say, How do we shut a library down? Because we’ve never done it before.” But this hardship could be a potential opportunity for DCLS to reimagine itself, he added, including upgrading its digital assets. “We get a chance to move forward and be the library that we need to be in the age that we’re in right now.”
Whatever the future holds for DCLS, however, it has strong support in all corners, and stakeholders are optimistic about its future. “When communities are suffering financially, that’s when the need for their library just increases. They need those services more than ever,” said Loftis. “But there are a lot of really energetic and passionate people working on it. We’re in touch and we’re in support, and we’re just going to do everything we can to help.”
“I have confidence in the citizens of Douglas County,” Dahlgreen told LJ—“that they’ll figure out something. Because we’re a very strong library state–we have some really excellent libraries. We have many communities that absolutely adore their libraries, and I really believe that this will turn out well eventually.”