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Libraries hope levy will stem service erosion

The levy's tax rate would be fixed at 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value

Four years after nearly a dozen Washington County libraries asked for financial help, voters will see a four-year levy for library services on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.

The levy would generate $29.5 million - about $7 million to $8 million each year - to help fund operating expenses of libraries in Tigard, Tualatin, Sherwood, Garden Home, Beaverton, West Slope, Banks, Cornelius, Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Cedar Mill and North Plains.

The levy's tax rate would be fixed at 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value - adding, for example, about $33 to the 2007 property tax bill for a $192,000 home.

'Many of the libraries, specifically the largest libraries - Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard - there's been significant reduction in hours open,' said Eva Calcagno, the county's cooperative library services manager. 'That has been very difficult for those users to deal with.'

The money would also help the libraries maintain a centralized Web site and inventory sharing system used across the county, officials said.

'We've got to get this (levy) passed so libraries can stay on solid footing,' said Pat Biggs, a Tigard resident and past president of People for Libaries, a countywide grassroots group campaigning for the library levy.

The county has gone to the voters twice since 1996, the last time a levy was approved, to attempt to gain more money for the libraries.

Each time, the levies failed.

In November 2002, voters defeated a $49.9 million proposed library levy by 611 votes. In May 2004, the levy passed, but voter turnout fell below the required double majority.

If the levy fails again, Tom Brian, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, predicted that city budgets would likely feel the pressure.

'It's down to where without continued support, there will be a more sudden drop in hours and inventory,' Brian said.

County officials said the new levy is needed because demand for library services is outpacing the resources available. In the past 10 years, use of the county's libraries increased 64 percent. At the same time, the county's funding significantly decreased.

In 1997 and 1998, the county was the primary funding source for the libraries, providing about 80 percent of each library's operating budget. Now, that funding has fallen to, on average, 58 percent of each library's operating budget.

Many libraries have been forced to cut back on services.

Indeed, Peter Leonard, executive director of the Cedar Mill Library, said November's levy is critical to maintaining services.

'We've cut our book budget,' Leonard said. 'We use to have 400 magazine subscriptions, now we're down to 320. We use to have a lot of databases for people to search, but those have been cut. But the biggest impact is the quantity of the books we buy. It used to be if there were a large number of people who wanted to read a book, like Harry Potter, we (would buy a lot of copies). Now, we will buy very few copies. It's just been an erosion of services.'