New funding for libraries is throwing good money after bad

Don Barney, chairman of the Library Foundation, which provides funding support for the Multnomah County Library system, gave your readers an eloquent summary (Lend a hand to the library, Insight, April 30) of why they should vote for the library tax levy in the May 21 primary election.

At the risk of sounding like the man who wants to kill Santa Claus, I suggest that you should vote no. Supporters of the tax levy say the county has an excellent library system, which it has, and that the tax measure has no organized opposition.

While it is true that no one is out marching, waving banners or placards, there is plenty of opposition among oppressed taxpayers who see the library system following a 'spend-spend' philosophy with little budget restraint. We already have a top-flight library system, and now it wants more tax money to buy even more bells and whistles.

There are significant pockets of determined opposition to the tax levy in the heavily populated Hillsdale area of Southwest Portland, where residents watched a botched attempt by library staffers to site a new branch library. That flawed siting process put the project three years behind schedule and a million dollars over budget, before the first shovelful of dirt was turned. Finally, this spring, construction began.

The process left a large group of unhappy library patrons with no convenient branch to patronize. If the library staff had chosen another site, and at least two were available, the existing branch could have remained open during construction.

After wasting years studying a constricted site virtually impossible to build on and contaminated with petroleum residue, the library staff finally decided to build on the site of the existing Hillsdale branch. That meant added cost to demolish the old branch, forcing patrons to use an inadequate temporary branch during construction or drive through heavy traffic to the Capitol Hill branch.

Patrons lost faith in the library staff during the entire wretched process.

Asking voters to approve a new tax levy Ñ the library's most expensive serial levy yet and so soon after its 1997 tax levy Ñ is a strategic blunder.

It is bad strategy because asking for new money without accompanying budget restraint shows poor planning and lack of disciplined leadership. Poor timing, too, considering the still-faltering economy and school funding crisis. These symptomatic problems affect the entire library system, not just Hillsdale alone.

More than two years ago, even before the latest delays at the Hillsdale branch, Ginnie Cooper, the county's library director, discussed the siting problems in a telephone conversation with me. I paraphrase her closing comment from memory:

'When the new branch is finished, I'll be there to shake your hand when we dedicate this fine new facility,' she said. 'You'll be there, won't you?' I told her, yes, I'd be there but would remain extremely disappointed at the three-year construction delay, the lack of budget restraint in the entire library system by its professional staff and the absence of clear direction from a county commission charged with showing the way.

Glenn Gillespie has lived in the Hillsdale neighborhood in Southwest Portland for 36 years. He is a retired journalist and corporate media relations manager.

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