The Multnomah County Library levy: Understanding the complexities

PORTLAND, Ore. — June 5, 2012 — Last month, voters in Multnomah County overwhelmingly approved a levy that will continue funding the library for the next three years without raising taxes.

Some in the community are wondering how passage of the levy – Measure 26-125 – could still result in reduced hours at the branches. The levy maintains the present property tax collection rate of $.89 per thousand.

Families throughout our community have felt the same effects of the sluggish economy on their finances and continue to make cutbacks in their own budgets. Like most other local government agencies, this is also the case for the library. So a reduction of hours is necessary.

Had voters not passed the levy, the library would have had to close numerous branches, decimating many of the services that we all care about. But thankfully, we are looking at smaller reductions.

To make sure those cuts aren't more drastic, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved spending $10 million in one-time-only money over the three years of the levy to minimize those cuts. But even that money isn't enough to stave off cuts in these tough economic times. Costs continue to increase as available dollars to meet financial obligations decline.

As a result of this widening gap, levy funds approved by voters on May 15 – which continue a rate first established in 2006 – are not sufficient to maintain current library services. Over the past five years, the library has kept up with huge increases in use and demand (31% more checkouts, 28% more library visits) while staffing remained essentially flat and the organization boosted its efficiency.

Also during this period, the library has experienced cost increases in health care and infrastructure – like technology, utilities, building repairs and fuel – while collecting a steadily shrinking percentage of funds approved by voters because of property tax amendments to the Oregon Constitution approved by voters in the 1990s.

Transparency is an important value for Multnomah County. In the case of the recent levy, county officials have been talking about the potential for cuts even if the levy passed since last year. Public hearings were held in order to ensure that county voters understood the fiscal ramifications. A number of media outlets, including The Oregonian and local TV stations, covered the issue about library hours. And voters saw in the measure's explanatory statement that passage of the levy would ensure at least six days of operation.

In the end, Multnomah County Library is sorry for any inconvenience that reduced hours cause our patrons. The library will continue to provide the outstanding service, programs and materials that everyone expects and deserves, even with fewer hours per week. Know that we are thankful that voters chose overwhelmingly to support our libraries.