Volume XVI | Issue 2 | Fall 2016
Computers are a popular resource at the main branch of the Douglas County Library in Roseburg. Photo: Nora Vitz Harrison

Putting a price on libraries

Survey highlights the importance of local funding

Published in June 2015, the Oregon Public Libraries Needs Assessment was commissioned by the Oregon Community Foundation to examine the roles of public libraries in its communities. The report also identifies the challenges they face to fill those roles. 

Consultant Penny Hummel, who conducted surveys with library directors statewide, says the assessment underscored the diversity of Oregon public libraries, including their funding sources. 

“It’s clear that there’s a heavy dependence on local public funding, whether through a district or levy,” Hummel says, “and sometimes it’s not transparent to the public how important that funding is.” 

Disappearing revenue

Yet public discussion of library funding is ramping up in places like Douglas County, where timber revenues have dried up, and county general funds will no longer be allotted to the library system by 2017. This lack of funds forces Douglas County to join other library districts around the state that must look to support beyond the county budget. 

Last November, The Ford Family Foundation awarded the Douglas County Library System a $300,000 grant to support operating costs. The grant was aimed at keeping the system operating at current levels until voters decide the matter. Community library supporters are preparing a measure that will be on the ballot in November that would establish a library tax district. 

Such measures have met with mixed results in Oregon. Voters in Eugene approved a five-year property tax levy in November 2015 that will collect $2.7 million a year to pay for staff and services at the city’s main library and two branches. The vote was by no means a mandate, however. Voter turnout was about 37% of ballots mailed, with nearly 53% approving and 47% against the measure. 

“We credit the success of the library levy largely to the efforts of community volunteers who worked on the ‘Yes’ campaign,” says Renee Grube, executive director of Library, Recreation, and Cultural Services for the City of Eugene.

Jackson County made national news in 2007 when all 15 of its library branches closed after county voters rejected a tax levy. Six months later, a down-sized system reopened under private management; most of the libraries cut their open hours in half. In 2014, voters passed a levy that created a new library district. Supporters promoted the district, an independent unit of local government, as a way to provide permanent, stable funding for the county’s libraries.

Coos County features a cooperative of eight public libraries and an Extended Services office, all funded through a dedicated tax base. Each library is accountable to the citizens of its area. The system has low overhead with no central headquarters and stays responsive to local needs.

Josephine County voters rejected a tax base for its library system in 2014. Today, a nonprofit organization runs the system and must rely on contributions and volunteers. The largest branch in Grants Pass is open 14 hours a week; other branches are open even fewer hours.  

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