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Let voters decide library district's fate

Our Opinion

Multnomah County commissioners should allow voters to decide whether they want to create a permanent source of funding for the county's much-treasured library system.

A vote on a library district ought to proceed in May, and library supporters should be ready to inform the public about why a district is needed and why what seems to be a tax increase to support such a district isn't really much of an increase at all.

The proposal for a library district bears little resemblance to the narrowly defeated bond levy that Portland Public Schools placed on the May ballot. In that case, property taxpayers would have seen their rates jump significantly - by $25 per month for the typical homeowner.

A library district, on the other hand, would have only a nominal effect on property tax bills. But formation of the district would deliver enormous benefits to library users by stabilizing a system that now depends on patchwork funding to keep it operating from year to year.

The library gets 70 percent of its funding from a five-year, temporary levy that's about to expire. The rate for that levy is 89 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, but the library doesn't actually receive the full value of that 89 cents. That's because property taxes for non-education purposes are capped in Oregon at $10 per $1,000 of property values. Various governments in Portland already are being squeezed - or 'compressed' - to fit within that $10 cap.

This compression has gotten more severe for local governments as the real market values of properties have declined in recent years. That's why, as the county considers a library district, a rate of 89 cents will not continue the current level of service, or anything close to it.

To keep the library system whole, a tax rate of about $1.19 per $1,000 is needed. This may seem like a big jump for taxpayers, but it's not. Because numerous jurisdictions must share a piece of the $10-per-$1,000 tax pie, the main effect of this increase would be to shift funding away from the city of Portland and toward the library. Typical homeowners would see an increase of about $4 per month in property taxes - and in some cases, they'd see even less than that.

The real question here isn't about property taxes, since homeowners have the overall protection of the $10 per $1,000 cap. Rather, the issue is one of priorities. If voters value libraries above many other services they receive - and past experience suggests they do - then county commissioners should give them the chance to approve a library district.

County Chair Jeff Cogen announced last week that he wouldn't forward a library district to voters in May, but instead would propose a renewed, three-year levy at the same 89-cent tax rate. Because of the compression problem, this levy would result in major cuts in library hours and personnel - reductions that could be avoided with a library district.

Cogen, however, fears that voters could reject anything larger than the 89-cent levy. If that happened, the library wouldn't be able to go back to voters until November - five months after the current levy expires. We share Cogen's concern about the risks of placing a library district plan before voters in May, but any alternative at this point poses a gamble for library funding.

We urge Cogen and other county commissioners to reconsider and allow voters to decide just how highly they value the library system. Multnomah County residents are among the heaviest users of libraries in the nation, and our guess is that they will want to keep those services intact - even if it means the city of Portland must tighten its own spending.

Editor's note: Portland Tribune President J. Mark Garber is a member of the Multnomah County Library Advisory Board.