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County library district plan headed for May 2012 ballot

Election would come just weeks before current levy expires

Multnomah County voters will just get one shot - the May 2012 primary - at approving renewed library funding before a five-year library levy expires next June 30.

County leaders have decided not to put a proposed library district measure on the November 2011 ballot as planned, largely because it would require a costly special election, said county Chair Jeff Cogen.

Instead, county commissioners will put a library measure, probably a proposed new library district, on the May primary ballot, several weeks before levy funding runs out, Cogen said.

'It would cost almost half a million dollars to have an election' in November, Cogen said. 'It seemed like not a fiscally prudent way to move forward.'

The county recently learned that it has to make $6 million to $8 million in additional budget cuts to its adopted 2011-12 budget, due to reduced state funding for counties enacted in the latter days of the 2011 legislative session, he said. Plus there will be 'millions and millions' in county funding cuts due to federal deficit-reduction measures, Cogen said.

Though the scope of federal cuts is still unknown, the county knows it will lose $3 million to $4 million from just one program: utility payment assistance for low-income families.

Election turnout a consideration

State and federal budget cuts give added impetus to county commissioners' plan to seek voter approval of a library-funding district next year. A library district would free the county from having to put temporary library funding levies on the ballot every five years, and provide county libraries a permanent tax base.

The district also would free up a projected $10 million a year in the county general fund used to supplement the library levies.

Cogen says he's operating under the assumption that the county will put a library district on the May 2012 ballot, not another library levy. A final decision on that matter is now expected next January or February.

Waiting until next May only gives one shot at securing voter approval before the current library levy expires. However, a March poll showed strong voter support for the library district. The two groups that recently raised $221,000 for the library district campaign, The Library Foundation and Friends of the Library, were willing to risk a May election, Cogen said.

'They really have the ability to garner the resources for one full-fledged campaign,' he said.

If the measure were placed on the November 2011 ballot, that would likely be a low-turnout election, compared to next May's ballot, which will include the presidential primary.

A high-turnout election should improve the library measure's prospects for passage, Cogen said.