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County deal puts library levy, district to a vote

Commissioners worried about support for new taxing district

Multnomah County commissioners and county library supporters have united around a compromise, two-step plan to secure short- and long-term funding of the county library system.

In a deal announced Tuesday morning, county leaders and library supporters agreed to support putting a three-year temporary tax levy on the ballot in May, to extend the current five-year library levy that expires June 30. The levy tax rate would remain at the current level, 89 cents in property taxes for every $1,000 in assessed property value.

Then, if county voters OK the proposed three-year levy in May, county commissioners pledged to put a permanent funding measure - a library district with its own taxing authority - on the ballot in November. That would replace the temporary levy with permanent property tax funding, probably at a tax rate of around $1.18 per $1,000 in assessed property value.

The compromise alleviates Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen's fear that voters would reject the more expensive library district proposal if placed on the May ballot, as recent polling indicated. That would have left the county with a 70 percent shortfall in library funds, assuring wide-scale branch closures and other major cutbacks.

The compromise also gives library boosters some hopes that their long-term dream - stable, permanent funding from a library district - remains in reach.

The deal has the support of all five county commissioners; leaders of The Library Foundation, which has raised $230,000 for the ballot measure campaign; the Friends of the Library, a volunteer group; and the union representing library workers, Local 88 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Even if voters approve the levy in May, it still will leave the library system with a 10 percent cut in operating funds for one year, even after the county plugs in $10 million in emergency funds, Cogen said. That's likely to result in shorter hours at library branches, and changes in staffing levels.

But recent polling suggested asking voters to support any increases in their property taxes right now would be futile.

That's a big reversal in voter sentiment.

In November 2010, county voters easily passed a charter amendment that eased the way for county commissioners to put a library district before voters. Then polling earlier in 2011 made it appear the library district would pass, and county commissioners were poised to put it before voters in May.

Recent polls showed voter support for the library district dropping below the 50 percent threshold, prompting Cogen to change his mind about the library district plans. Generally, political campaigners prefer to see at least 60 percent support for a tax increase before a campaign ensues, because support inevitably falls once the financial reality sets in and critics take aim at a tax measure.

Bowing to political reality, Cogen proposed last month the idea of shelving the library district measure until 2014, and instead putting a three-year levy before voters in May, at the current tax rate so it wouldn't be perceived as a tax increase.

But county commissioners Diane McKeel and Judy Shiprack, along with many library boosters, resisted the idea. They wanted Cogen to put the library district on the May ballot, arguing that any ballot measure was a gamble. Supporters had been gearing up for a library district campaign, and were not ready to accept the prospect of another year of library cuts.

That prompted two weeks of negotiations among the various players.

'I've spent a lot of time for the last couple of weeks listening to advocates and supporters, and we listened to each other,' Cogen said Tuesday.

The two-step compromise was first suggested by Chris Warner, Commissioner Loretta Smith's chief of staff, Cogen said.

That proposal, to be presented as a resolution before county commissioners at Thursday's meeting, assures library boosters they don't have to wait three years for the district campaign, and don't lose the momentum they've accrued, Cogen said.

It also allows an extra six months for the economy to improve, softening the impact of a tax increase, Cogen said. In addition, the presidential vote will assure higher voter turnout next November, which is expected to improve the prospects for passage of the library district.

Despite the opposition from two of the five county commissioners, Cogen said Tuesday that his December proposal could have prevailed. But, he said, 'It wasn't the right thing to do.'

The compromise, he said, assures that all the key library supporters are on board, and will unite around the two ballot measures.