When retired judge Joan Seitz entered a bookmobile that dropped by her Klamath Falls neighborhood when she was 10, it was her first experience with a library. Her parents didn’t use the library and weren’t particularly interested in reading.
Walking into the bookmobile was like stepping into another world, Seitz said. In that world, she discovered a love of books that’s lasted her whole life.
Those books fed her imagination and helped her discover life had more possibilities than she had dreamed. Because she loved to read so much, an English teacher suggested she go to college, and Seitz did, even though her father didn’t understand why she would want to. From college she went to law school and from there on to a successful legal career and 24 years as a judge. Throughout those years she worked at libraries to earn money.
And all of it began with that first step into the bookmobile.
“Libraries and books became something that opened doors for me that nobody else had opened for me,” Seitz said.
Her first books were about kids and what they were doing in the summertime. One she particularly remembers was about a girl learning to sail. As a mother, she carried books for her daughter in her purse wherever they went. As a judge, when she was presiding over a murder trial, she’d read mystery and espionage novels.
With the Douglas County Library System in danger of closing, and a proposed library district on the ballot, Seitz has been driven to do what she can to save the library. She and her husband have distributed 400 signs around the county. Now they’re knocking on doors to get the word, and the vote, out. Seitz wants to make sure that the door that opened up her world remains open for younger generations.
Not everyone can afford the books or the internet service that’s available through the library, she said.
“I’m doing this because it really means something to me. It’s for the people that don’t have anything,” she said.
Members of the Save Our Libraries Political Action Committee like to say forming a library district is the only way to save the Douglas County Library System — and that there is no Plan B. Technically, that’s true. There are no formal backup plans. Some opponents of the district have suggested alternatives, among them privatization or letting each city run its own library. Library district supporters say none of those plans will work. We’ll look at those options and what other counties have done in Tuesday’s The News-Review.
For now, let’s take a look at Plan A.
What Measure 10-145 asks Douglas County voters to decide is whether to form a new library district and the tax that goes with it. If they approve, the libraries would no longer be under the county government. Rather they would be operated by an independent district with a five-member board of directors. Six people are running for those five spots on the board, and their names are all on the ballot this November, too.
The district would levy a tax up to 44 cents per $1,000 of property value. It’s this part of the plan that’s most controversial, with opponents saying not everyone can afford the tax and supporters saying it’s necessary to restore the library to a full-time operation.
The library district tax would generate about $3.8 million to operate 10 libraries. (Sutherlin City Council opted out, so Sutherlin voters won’t get to vote on the district and won’t be in it.)
This year’s library budget, approved by the Douglas County Board of Commissioners in June, is a considerably more modest $1.3 million. The library budget has dwindled rapidly in recent years. It’s down to 17.5 employees and is open just 24 hours per week. It will remain open to the end of June partly thanks to a cash infusion from the Ford Family Foundation, which ponied up a one-time donation designed to ensure the library remained open long enough for voters to decide on a library district.
If the district doesn’t pass, the county may begin ramping down services and could close the libraries in June.
The figure for the tax district was generated by taking the library budget from 2008, when the library had a full staff of 45 employees and was open more hours, and then translating that figure into 2016 dollars. The amount was also adjusted to account for the cost of services the county provides the library now, like human resources and information technology.
Save our Libraries PAC member Robert Heilman said they wanted a library district that serves the community’s needs as cheaply as possible.
“We are convinced that it can’t be done cheaper,” he said.
Gerald Gindlesperger of Umpqua thinks the tax is a bad idea.
Gindlesperger said he doesn’t have a problem with the library, he just thinks it should be funded by those who use it and not by the taxpayers.
Gindlesperger said he could afford to pay another $88 a year for the library tax, but many seniors on fixed incomes couldn’t. Neither could the person making minimum wage, whose rent is likely to rise after the landowner tacks the new tax onto the bill, he said. He bases the $88 on the $200,000 median price for a home in Douglas County.
“You’re taking that much money out of what I have or what others have to spend on the economy here. And if you run around town right now and look at the number of empty storefronts, they’re empty for a reason. It’s because people can’t afford to buy things like they could 10 years ago,” he said.
“We’ve got a huge problem in the county with poverty, we’ve got a huge problem with businesses failing, and we’re going to add more to government and take away from the private sector in order to pay for the library when it should be fee based,” he said.
Library supporters say a fee basis won’t work to fund the library, and that without the district tax, the libraries will be forced to close.
The library gets plenty of use. Last year, county residents checked out 350,000 books, received 72,000 books on interlibrary loans and logged 110,000 hours of computer use. That last figure illustrates that the library has moved into the digital age. It provides downloads of e-books and internet access that’s critical for low income residents who can’t afford internet at home but need it to apply for jobs.
Seitz said she brought one of her library signs to an elderly woman in Drain who was very poor and supported the library district because she didn’t know what she’d do if the Drain library closed down. It’s the only entertainment she can afford.
Supporters also say the library fosters literacy and educational success for kids through preschool story time and the summer reading program.
According to Oregon State Librarian MaryKay Dahlgreen, libraries provide economic benefits, too.
“Businesses tend to want to build in communities with good infrastructure, including libraries,” she said.
Libraries also have intrinsic value, Heilman said.
“They are an important part of who we are, keeping urbanity, culture and beauty for its own sake from passing away,” he said.
Heilman paints the alternative — the failure of the library district and the possibility they shut down for good — in stark contrast.
“Without libraries I would expect our already high adult functional illiteracy rate to increase and our already high school dropout and teen pregnancy rates as well. As a result of those factors and an increased difficulty in business recruiting...poverty and crime rates will likely go up as well,” he said.
There are some hidden costs in the library district proposal. Most properties in Roseburg, Winston and Reedsport are already at the $10 per thousand tax cap on non-school property taxes set by Measure 5. That means passing a new tax there puts those properties into compression. Under compression, each taxing district on that property — such as a city government or a fire district — has to take a proportionately reduced piece of the tax pie. Each district gets something, but it’s not as much as the full tax rate.
That means a loss of revenue, and that’s particularly pronounced in Roseburg, where the loss to city government alone is estimated to be between $300,000 and $600,000. And that’s going to mean some city services have to be cut back to make way for the library.
It also means taxpayers in some districts would contribute less money to the library than others. Heilman estimates property owners in compression would pay around 38 cents per thousand, six cents less than those in the rest of the county.
“Should those 38 pennies go to city or county government? Should some part of those $10 be dedicated to preserving our libraries? The voters must choose,” Heilman said.