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Library taxing district plan needs a fallback plan B

This fall, Clackamas County will ask voters to approve a permanent taxing district to fund libraries.

The decision to create the district was hastened by the federal government's decision to halt annual timber payments to rural counties that lost money over the years with the sharp decline in logging on federal land. About $800 million of the county's budget is non-discretionary, meaning it's already tied to specific programs. With about 75 percent of the remaining $100 million budget going toward public safety - an area deemed untouchable - the loss of the annual $12.5-million payment equals about 50 percent of the remaining money in the general fund.

The library district not only compensates for this loss of federal funding, it also guarantees a steady funding stream for libraries in the future, and will even allow the system to make improvements.

While we applaud county commissioners for taking the action, we question their decision to move forward with no contingency plan. If the library levy - which would tax county residents at 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed value - fails, county library funding will still be eliminated by 2014. For a vibrant and heavily used facility like the Lake Oswego Library, which, according to Director Bill Baars, receives 30 percent of its operating revenue from the county, library patrons would suffer if the district fails.

'We rely on materials from throughout Clackamas County ... in fact, we are net borrowers. This means that we use materials from other libraries far more than they use ours. Lake Oswego's library users have come to rely on the county pool of materials as being part of the vast resource to which they have access. If this measure fails, we will be faced with the likelihood of seeing both a diminishment in the number of libraries in Clackamas County and a very different makeup in terms of the materials, hours and services those libraries provide.'

By taking an all-or-nothing attitude with the passage of the library levy, the county may have already guaranteed its failure. Most tax increases face an uphill battle, and if the current economic slump continues, voter attitudes toward special levies will grow more hostile, no matter how important the cause.

To have any chance of passing the levy, the county needs the unfettered support of its cities. They're asking for $10,000 from each city for the library district's marketing campaign. In addition, each city will have to enthusiastically endorse the special district and sell it to local voters.

It's likely that each of the county's 12 cities will fall into line - they have virtually no choice. But if the lively debate at last week's Milwaukie City Council meeting was any indication, there is already resentment over the way the county is moving forward. City councilors wanted to know why there's no contingency plan, questioned commissioners' decision not to scale back the public safety budget and even took issue with the way the county planned to market the campaign.

County libraries already fought to have a permanent levy passed in the 1990s to tax voters for 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. When voters approved Measure 50 and changed the way government bodies implemented taxes, that levy was folded into the general fund, where it still goes today.

That levy dumps $11 million annually into the general fund. The county spends $7.1 million on libraries each year, and the new levy will bring in almost $12 million. The total loss from the timber payments, which is supposedly affecting other services, too, is $12.5 million. If the numbers are any indication, the libraries are clearly bearing an inequitable share of the financial belt-tightening.

We understand the paramount importance of public safety funding, and we realize that the archaic taxing mechanisms set up by Measure 50 have crunched public budgets. Nonetheless, the elimination of the timber payments have been on the horizon for years. We think that a county focused on sustaining its resources - whether they be cultural, infrastructural or environmental - can do better than offering plans with no contingencies. That's not a sustainable way to do business.