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Monday, December 19, 2011

Cogen Won't Push for Library District Next Year

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Dec 19, 2011 at 9:14 AM

Though it may mean cutbacks for Multnomah County's highly decorated library system, County Chairman Jeff Cogen on Friday told library employees on Friday he won't push to create a tax-revenue-raising library district next year.

Instead, blaming a dour mood among voters who might face a sizable tax hit, he'll wait two more years to push for a district and ask voters, for the next three years, to just renew the temporary tax levy they've already been paying. And that means cutbacks. The library system has already been drawing from the county's own dwindling reserves to make ends meet in recent years.

"In a time of continuing deep job losses, stagnant wages and economic uncertainty, Multnomah County residents feel financially strapped," Cogen wrote to employees in an email that was later forwarded to the Mercury. "The willingness of most of our residents to pay any additional taxes, even for such a cherished and vital service, simply does not exist."

Property taxes make up the bulk of the library's funding. Cogen says no branches will close but that some locations will have their hours reduced or see layoffs. That may wind up enraging union leaders, particularly in AFSCME, which represents a fair number of library workers.

County commissioners are expected to vote on Cogen's recommendation January 5. The Oregonian, which wrote an editorial this weekend on the subject, kinda/sorta blesses the plan, but also says it's time for voters to pony up with permanent funding.

Someone who might be happy about all this in spite of himself? Mayor Sam Adams. Because of Oregon's byzantine property tax laws, a library district—instead of just a library levy—would wind up costing Portland's general fund millions of dollars.

Update 10:30AM: Katie Lane, chairwoman of the Multnomah County Library Advisory Board, offers some context on the tax increase Cogen is shying away from, as well as on layoffs. How much will the average tax bill go up? $52 a year, she says, based on the average assessed value of county homes: $178,480. And what about layoffs? Lane says they could amount to 80 to 100 positions, based on county estimates. That's about 20 percent of current library staff.

Lane also says the hit to Portland's budget from a district wouldn't have to be as bad as advertised. Creating a library district would free up some $8 million in county general fund money for other priorities—meaning the county could step in (now I'm riffing here) and pay for social services programs like Hooper Detox that the city currently finds itself funding.

Cogen's full letter is after the cut.

Dear Library Employees,

I know you have been waiting to learn which library funding measure the Board of County Commissioners will refer to voters on the May 2012 ballot.

This has been an extremely difficult decision. The services you provide every day are critical to the health, education and welfare of Multnomah County residents. And I am deeply committed to creating a library district that provide the library system with long-term stable funding.

However, creating a library district at this time would require asking voters to raise their property taxes for library services by more than 30 percent. It would also reduce revenue to our partner jurisdictions, like the City of Portland. Further, referring a levy at a high enough rate to maintain current service levels would result in a 39 percent library property tax increase. After having numerous discussions with county residents, and carefully assessing the political and economic environments, I have concluded that this is not the time to refer a library district nor an increased levy to voters.

In a time of continuing deep job losses, stagnant wages and economic uncertainty, Multnomah County residents feel financially strapped. The willingness of most of our residents to pay any additional taxes, even for such a cherished and vital service, simply does not exist.

If we refer a measure to the ballot that fails, the library would experience a devastating loss of 70 percent of its funding. On Jan. 5, 2012, I will propose to the Board of County Commissioners that we put a three-year levy on the May ballot that renews the current levy rate of 89 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. At the same time, we would affirm our plan to refer the library district to voters in November 2014 when we hope economic times are better.

The three-year levy extension would allow us to keep every library branch open at no additional cost to taxpayers. Even if voters approve this approach, there will still be a gap. The library is already tapping its carryover reserve to cover an $11 million shortfall in this year’s budget. That gap is projected to widen over each of the next three years.

To help close this gap, I will also ask the Board to allocate general-fund reserves to bolster the library's revenues for the next three years. My goal is to limit the reduction to the library’s budget to 10 percent. Unfortunately, this approach will force us to reduce library hours and staff positions. While all branches will remain open, hours must be cut back to operate within the budget.

This is not the choice I had hoped to make. But I believe strongly that this is the only viable option at this time.

The libraries embody the very spirit of public service. Your hard work and dedication to the community shows every day as our residents continue to use the library in record numbers. I want to thank you for everything you do to make our libraries great.

Know this: I will do everything I can to help pass the levy measure in May and to ensure that we obtain a permanent funding solution for the library in 2014.

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