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Libraries struggle to keep up with demands of growth

ELECTION -- Countywide levy aims to boost local book budgets and expand hours at 12 libraries
by: Chase Allgood,

Four years after a dozen or so Washington County libraries asked for financial help, voters will again 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 Banks, Cornelius, Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Beaverton, Cedar Mill, Garden Home, North Plains, Sherwood, Tigard, Tualatin and West Slope.

The levy's tax rate would be fixed at 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value - adding $34 to the 2007 property tax bill for a $200,000 home.

'At many of the libraries, 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.'

In Cornelius, for example, the city library is now open 23 hours per week, half the 46-hour schedule of 2004-05.

City officials hope to expand services to 35 hours a week next month and that figure could rise next year if the levy passes, according to City Manager David Waffle.

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.

Both times, though for different reasons, 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 50-percent voter-turnout requirement for spring elections.

If the levy fails again, Tom Brian, chairman of the board of county commissioners, predicted that city budgets will 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.

Forest Grove City Councilor Pete Truax said he's supporting the levy for several reasons: it helps take pressure off the city budget, it keeps tax dollars local and, he said, 'it's just the right thing to do.

'An informed electorate is the greatest contribution to democracy,' he said. 'I would much rather leave a legacy of a library as fully funded as possible than a city where such a service was dismissed by the city fathers as frivolous.'

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.

Cornelius left its library director position unfilled for more than a year. (The new director, Karen Hill, started last week.) In Cedar Mill, the library cut back on materials.

'We use to have 400 magazine subscriptions, now we're down to 320,' said Peter Leonard, executive director. '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,' he said. '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.'