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Library boosters may seek district vote

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Patrons, including Li Wu at the Midland branch of the Multnomah County Library, may soon see a move toward more permanent library funding after a three-year levy extension was approved Tuesday.

Multnomah County leaders and library supporters will huddle Monday to plot the next step to secure long-term library funding, after voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved stopgap money by renewing a short-term operating levy.

By a whopping 5-to-1 margin, county voters approved a three-year renewal of the current property tax levy. That will enable libraries to keep operating when the current five-year levy expires June 30, and maintain the current property tax level of 89 cents for every $1,000 in assessed value, or $178 for a home assessed at $200,000.

"We didn't expect this kind of a margin," said Brian Wilson, campaign chairman. "We thought it would be a sizable win, but we didn't think it would be this big."

To put the numbers in perspective, the library levy had the same level of support as city of Portland charter amendments that were considered routine housekeeping measures.

County Chair Jeff Cogen said Wednesday morning that he summoned political leaders and people active in the Library Foundation and Friends of the Multnomah County Library to discuss future election strategy on Monday, in a private meeting at his office. The key issue is whether county commissioners will make good on their pledge last December to put a countywide library district -- which would raise the tax rate while providing permanent property taxes for libraries -- before voters in November.

Library supporters have long dreamed of a district to achieve stable funding, so the library system isn't dependent on going back to voters every three to five years to renew temporary tax levies. Multnomah County voters made it easier to form a district when they approved a county charter amendment in 2010.

A library district has been pegged to cost $1.18 in property taxes for every $1,000 in assessed value. That's enough to replace the temporary levy and supplemental dollars from the county general fund. So a library district would also ease the county's funding woes.

However, it's unclear if voters will be ready to stomach a property tax increase in November. And library boosters are concerned about how city of Portland leaders may react, because a library district would wind up trimming property taxes now going to city programs.

Library boosters were reluctant to talk about a tax hike so soon after Tuesday's win. "We'll continue to try to look for better funding mechanisms as we go into the future," Wilson said, while noting that library supporters have long thought that temporary levies are not the best way to fund the system.

But the unexpectedly strong vote for the library levy, at a time when the economy is still sour, buttresses the case library boosters are likely to make Monday for a November vote on a library district.

The library foundation and friends group raised the money and supplied the volunteers for the levy campaign. November's election is expected to have high turnout from liberals because of the presidential race.

Tepid poll results last fall had convinced Cogen and other county commissioners to sideline plans to put the library district before voters in the May 2012 primary, and put forth the levy renewal instead. However, fears that the economy would dilute voter support for library taxes may have proved overly cautious.

"At this point, we're going to take a couple days to digest what we just heard (from voters), which is, frankly, fantastic," Cogen said Wednesday.

As for last December's agreement to go forward in November, Cogen said, "There was an agreement that if that's what everybody wanted to do, we would do it."

He may find out Monday if the key players are still on board for another campaign.