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  • 29 Aug 2014

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Multnomah County residents favoring library district

Multnomah County voters easily approved a permanent library district Tuesday, giving the county library system a dedicated stream of property tax funding for the first time.

Measure 26-143 was ahead by 61.6 percent to 38.4 percent as of Wednesday morning, with a small amount of ballots still uncounted. The measure authorizes the county to charge property owners $1.24 for every $1,000 in assessed property value, or about $186 a year for owners of a house assessed at $150,000. About half the homes in the county have assessments higher than that amount, and half are assessed below that level.

Voter approval of the district frees the county from having to go back to voters every few years to renew short-term property tax levies. It also frees up several million dollars a year from the county’s general fund that has been used to supplement money from the short-term levies.

The county has relied on short-term property tax levies to fund the bulk of its library budget since 1976.

Voters approved a three-year levy last May, set at 89 cents for every $1,000 in assessed value. The new library district — which replaces that levy — will cost a typical homeowner about $53 a year more than allowed by the temporary levy.

There was no organized opposition to the library district, though there had been concern that Portland city officials and public employee unions might oppose it. That’s because passage of the library district shuffles property taxes for other local governments, due to the phenomenon called “compression.”

Over the years, Portland voters have authorized more property taxes than are allowed by a series of statewide property tax limitations. That forces the approved amounts to be compressed to fit within those limits.

The city of Portland expects to lose several million dollars a year, softening the blow of the property tax increase for residents within the city. However, Portland officials may negotiate with county officials to pass off funding for some services that had been handled by the city.

"There's already been an arrangement that the mayor and I have worked out," said County Chair Jeff Cogen. The city helped provide offsetting aid to the county when urban renewal reduced county funding, Cogen said.

"The county's going to do the same thing" for the city, he said.

County commissioners had pondered putting the library district before voters last year, but feared the sagging economy might sour voters’ interest in approving the library district. Commissioners played it safe and put a simple renewal of the prior five-year levy on the ballot. Because of inflation and compression, that doesn’t raise as much money as in prior years, causing the county to trim library hours and make other cuts last July.

Those cuts will be restored next July, when the library district funding commences.

Though the library district frees up money in the county's general fund, Cogen said it won't enable much of an expansion of county services.

"The net result is that we'll probably have a smaller budget cut than we otherwise would have," Cogen said.