Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about the proposed library district on the November ballot. The first part appeared Sunday.
Douglas County voters will decide in November whether to approve formation of an independent library district. The Douglas County Library System is jeopardized by dwindling county funds. It faces an uncertain future. Members of the Save Our Libraries Political Action Committee argue a district is the only way to prevent the libraries from closing this summer.
Opponents of the library district, and the tax that comes with it, primarily suggest one of two alternatives. In the first scenario, they propose privatizing the library system. In the second, they propose letting individual cities take over the libraries in their towns.
In 1901, the state legislature passed a bill creating public libraries. At that time, the state had only subscription libraries, at which wealthy patrons paid for the right to check out books. Women from Roseburg and other cities who had joined their local chapters of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs argued that libraries should be free and available to all. The legislature agreed, with all but two of its members voting in favor of public libraries.
Portland librarian Francis Isom spoke passionately about the importance of public libraries in her day. According to the Oregon State Library website, Isom wrote in 1902, “Let us not rest until every town and village in Oregon has its free public library as well as its free public school.”
Now, some Douglas County residents want to turn back the clock. They say people who want to use the library should pay for the service, rather than asking taxpayers to foot the bill. They also suggest a private company could run the library less expensively than the county does, for example by reducing pay and benefits earned by public employees.
The News-Review was unable to find any examples of a county library system that’s been truly privatized — one taken over and run exclusively by a private business — in Oregon. Such a library would no longer be a public library, and wouldn’t be eligible for state funding or grants provided to public libraries.
The privatization example most often cited by library district opponents is that of Jackson County.
Jackson County Library District Board President Maureen Swift said privatizing is the wrong term for what’s happened in her county.
“I do fight against the use of that word, because there are connotations to it that aren’t accurate,” she said.
Swift said Jackson County’s libraries remain public libraries — free, and open to the public.
The Jackson County government closed its libraries for six months in 2007 for lack of funds. Late that year, it reopened with reduced hours and contracted with the private company Library Systems and Services to manage its system.
Now, Jackson County has an independent library district, much like the one proposed here. Voters passed the district in 2014. The district is financed by a property tax of 52 cents per $1,000 of property value, and is authorized to go up to 60 cents if needed. That’s a higher tax rate than the 44 cents per $1,000 tax proposed in Douglas County.
The new library district continues to contract with Library Systems and Services, paying the company $5.6 million annually to manage its 15-library system.
District board members have looked into whether they can get out of that contract.
Swift said they’re not sure if the additional layer of paying the company to manage the system is necessary. Some concerns have also been raised about the fact that the company is making a profit, but refuses to disclose how much that profit is, even though the money comes from taxpayers.
Contracting out management won’t necessarily solve Douglas County’s financial problem, Swift said.
“If the county doesn’t have enough money to run it, they’re still not going to have enough money to contract with somebody to run it,” she said.
Save Our Libraries PAC member Robert Heilman said Douglas County library supporters looked into the idea of hiring a company like Library Systems and Services. They found it would cost more to hire the company than it would cost to run the libraries without them, he said.
Could cities take over running their own libraries?
Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice points out the cities originally did run their own independent libraries. In 1955, the year the county took over the libraries, the county commissioners were flush with timber dollars — exactly the opposite financial situation the county finds itself in today.
“They got to sit around the table and figure out how to spend all this money, and that was one of their ideas, and it was a good one, let’s consolidate the county library system into one system and share resources,” he said.
Boice isn’t taking sides on whether the district should pass, but he also isn’t willing to say the libraries will definitely close if it doesn’t pass.
“The people that are passionate about the library service and recognize the importance of it to the community are not going to dry up and blow away in the wind. Those folks and the counties and cities will begin to look at other alternatives,” Boice said.
Oakland Mayor Bette Keehley said her town is ready and willing to take over its own library if the district fails.
Right now, the town’s library is open just 15 hours per week. Keehley said Oakland could staff a volunteer-run library and it would be open more hours for less money.
“We have people in our community that are very generous with things, and when there’s a need they do answer that call. I think we could do something like a library,” Keehley said.
The town already owns the building. In fact, every town in the county except for Roseburg owns its own library building. The county owns the main branch in Roseburg, and the city of Roseburg pays the county $50,000 each year as its contribution to the system.
Keehley envisions a system in which the county would maintain a warehouse facility with the books and staff it. The cities would run their own branches with volunteers and would help pay for the couriers who bring the books from the warehouse. It’s a proposal she put forward before district proponents put forward their plan, and it’s one she’ll bring up again if the district fails.
Other city leaders are less sure what they’ll do if voters reject a district, but they’ll likely also look at volunteer-run libraries.
Roseburg City Manager Lance Colley said the Roseburg City Council has had no discussions about the possibility of running a city library, and he has no information about what the cost of such a project might be. Whether it even wanted to take on such a project would be a policy decision for the council, he said.
Myrtle Creek Mayor Ken Brouillard said his city already owns its library building and takes care of its maintenance and electricity. If the district fails, he said the city council will have some decisions to make.
In theory, it could either devote a city employee to the library or staff it with volunteers. Then, too, there’s the question of whether it would have to buy the books from the county, how much that would cost and how it could afford to keep collection current.
Nobody has the answers yet, Brouillard said.
“It’ll all shake out one way or another. I’m not concerned about it because it will all work its way out. Of that I’m sure,” he said.