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County shelves library district

Supporters still hope to convince commission for May vote on plan

With new polls showing local voters are resistant to any property tax increases right now, Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen has decided against putting a library district on the May primary ballot. Cogen’s bow to political reality is causing a gut check for library boosters, who had high hopes of gaining a permanent and dedicated source of property taxes for the county library system. Cogen wants to ask voters to renew the temporary library levy that expires June 30, at the current rate of 89 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, so it won’t be considered a tax increase. That leaves the heavily used library system without money to cover inflation and the costs of serving new library branches for the next three years, likely causing reduced branch hours and staffing. “It’s a big shift for us to be thinking of supporting an 89-cent levy with staffing cuts and service reductions, compared to what we had our sights focused on,” says Merris Sumrall, chief executive officer of The Library Foundation. The foundation, which already has raised more than $230,000 to run the library district campaign, has sought stable library funding for many years. Sumrall called an emergency meeting of the foundation board to discuss Cogen’s proposal, and says the group is in negotiations with county leaders. Sumrall and some of Cogen’s fellow county commissioners, including Diane McKeel, also are reluctant to give up on the library district idea. Sumrall notes that the library district would cost owners of an average home about $4.50 a month, the price of a fancy coffee drink at Starbucks. Some library boosters are hopeful they could win over county voters, who eased creation of a library district when they overwhelming approved a county charter amendment in November 2010. “That was passed (with) 72 percent (of the vote), and it didn’t poll well either,” Sumrall says. But Cogen says public opinion has changed since a poll earlier this year showed solid support for a library district. “People are feeling broke, and they’re feeling scared,” he says. “Bottom line, I don’t think this is the right time.” Newer polls were conducted on behalf of The Library Foundation, but Sumrall isn’t releasing the poll results. Cogen proposes to wait 2 1/2 years and put the library district on the ballot in November 2014. Saying yes to higher taxes? It’s a bitter pill to swallow for Cogen and his colleagues, because the library district would eliminate the need for the county to supplement the temporary library levies with funds from the county general fund. That would free several million dollars a year for other county services. A permanent library district would require a boost in the current tax rate from 89 cents per $1,000 in assessed value up to at least $1.18, Cogen says. Extending the existing levy at a level that retains current service levels would require a tax rate of $1.24. In either situation, Cogen says, “It would be very hard to get a majority to agree to say yes to increase their taxes.” The blow to Portland homeowners would be offset, in part, by reduced property taxes for the city, because of a phenomenon known as “compression.” Portland voters have approved more local government levies than are allowed by state property tax limitations, so levy collections are compressed to fit within the allowed cap. A library district would be a higher priority, under compression, than a temporary library levy, explaining why the two require different tax rates. Either a library district or an increased levy could slice several million dollars from Portland’s tax collections. City Commissioner Amanda Fritz says it’s not the right time to pass a library district, given the cuts it would bring to City Hall. In an email circulating among movers and shakers, Fritz raises the specter that city cuts could result in the closure of fire stations and other services, prompting unions representing city employees to oppose the library district. Cogen argues that even asking voters to extend the library levy, without increasing the rate, will require a significant campaign. “These are not normal times,” he says. “Right now it will be difficult to pass anything.” Local pollster Mike Riley concurs that local voters’ mood has soured lately. “There is a different kind of a tax mentality than there used to be, even around sacred cows like the library,” says Riley, research director of Riley Research Associates in Cedar Hills. Cogen’s big fear is that if voters reject a library district just as funds expire on the temporary levy, that leaves a 70 percent hole in library funding, at least until another vote next November. Katie Lane, chairwoman of the Multnomah County Library Advisory Board, says failure of the district ballot measure would cripple the system. “We are going to lose a lot of talent and experience and resources, and building up will take a lot of time,” Lane says. However, Lane, speaking for herself and not her board, still wants to press ahead with the library district vote. “At this point, everything is going to be a gamble,” she says. Some library boosters will appear at the Dec. 22 county commissioners meeting to lobby for the district. Jan. 5 is the deadline for commissioners to place the library district on the May ballot.