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Needs Funding

Douglas County Library System Needs Funding

News-Review -March 25, 2015

Our Douglas County Library System is probably the most popular of all the services that our local tax dollars provide. So, it is only natural that when a funding crisis comes along, people try to come up with solutions to help preserve the system. Unfortunately, the most common of these schemes either simply don’t work or can’t be applied.

One often-heard proposal is to charge fees for library cards. Actually, the DCLS does, in fact, charge a $50.00 fee for some library cards. But these are for people who don’t live in the library district, that is, within our county. Oregon law prohibits tax-funded libraries from charging card fees to residents of their districts. This is because public libraries are either free libraries or they are not public libraries.The Peterborough Public Library in Peterborough, New Hampshire was the first tax-supported free public library in the world back when it opened in 1833 and this is how we’ve done things here in America ever since. “We the people” provide ourselves with unlimited access to books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, newspapers, computers and children’s programs and we do so at public expense. It is a compassionate act and a generous act—one that speaks well of us as a people.

I’ve heard it said that The U.S. Constitution, baseball and Jazz constitute the three great gifts of the American people to the world. I would add the creation of free public-supported libraries to that short list.

Another common suggestion is to hand the running of our libraries over to a for-profit company. In some cases this works out to be cheaper for the tax-payers because the company pays out considerably less in wages and benefits to library staff.

A few years back, the Douglas County Commissioners, in their role as Board of Directors for the library system, asked for an estimate from the outfit that runs Jackson County’s public libraries. The private sector’s studied answer was that they couldn’t run our libraries any cheaper than the way it was already being done. For-profit enterprises, of course, need to make a profit and after several years of annual trimming there just wasn’t enough fat left to make privatization profitable without closing the doors on some of our eleven libraries. The commissioners weren’t willing to close any branches and so the notion was dropped.

This remarkable efficiency in a government institution does not come cheaply. There is a human and institutional cost to saving tax-payer dollars. At present, the doors of our libraries are open 40% fewer hours than they had traditionally been, a significant loss to the patrons. Our library system’s staffing has been cut, forcing fewer people to do more work and to do so in less time. There are, at present, only six full-time employees and the system has been losing workers frequently as they abandon our County system for full-time employment elsewhere. And there are no county taxes spent on the collection itself. For years now, every new book on those shelves has been paid for with private charitable donations scraped together by the Friends of the Library, the Douglas County Library Foundation and bequests from kindly citizens.

It is difficult to get people to understand that the current level of funding (about $1.5 million per year) is neither adequate nor sustainable. The system is already in serious decline and has been for the past fifteen years and studies done by the Douglas County Library Foundation estimate that it would take about $3 million yearly to both adequately serve our county’s residents and maintain a healthy library system.
The county commissioners have asked Harold Hayes, the library system’s director, to prepare budget scenarios calling for a “hold the line” budget at the current level (which given the fact of inflation is itself a budget cut), and a budget based on a 25% cut below the current level. To meet this 25% cut the system will be forced to either close some of our libraries or to reduce open-door hours drastically.
Given the inevitable (and long forewarned) loss of our “safety net” federal funding and the property tax limitation laws that were passed in the 1990’s, we will undoubtedly be faced with a mix of specifically targeted tax ballot measures as well as increased usage fees to make up the shortfall. What services we choose to support and at what level will say a great deal about us as a people and determine just what sort of a future we’ll have here.

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