Connecting state and local government leaders

Tax-Averse County’s Last Public Library Prepares to Close

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Funding for a library system that covers an area larger than the state of Connecticut has dried up. What comes next?

On the website of the Douglas County Library System in southwest Oregon, visitors are currently greeted with an unusual advisory notice, bolded in a red typeface:  

The LAST DAY to checkout materials will be Saturday, May 27th.
All items will be due by Wednesday, May 31st.
The check-out limit is 20 items per library card.

On a program page for the library’s Roseburg location, there’s this piece of sad news: “The Mainly Mysteries Book Club is disbanded until further notice.” There are no upcoming events after May 31, except for the June 20 Library Board meeting.

After closing 10 of its branches in April, the Douglas County Library System is getting ready to shutter its last remaining location at the end of the month.

Many public library systems have long known the challenges that come with balancing limited funding with maintaining services. But it’s unusual for a budget situation to get so bad that the entire library system has to be shuttered.  

In tax-averse Douglas County, a place that’s roughly the size of Connecticut, voters in November defeated a measure that would have kept the libraries open. In January, commissioners chose not to fund the system through additional general fund expenditures, meaning the library administrators had the unenviable task of ramping down their operations this winter and spring.  

The county library system had been staffed by eight full-time, 28 part-time and 12 on-call employees, according to The News-Review in Roseburg.

The New York Times, this weekend, highlighted the dismal situation in Douglas County and some of its neighboring conservative jurisdictions where public services are being cut to the bone:

An instinctive reaction against higher taxes has been stitched into the fabric of America in recent decades, starting with the property tax revolts of the 1970s through the anti-tax orthodoxy expressed by many conservative members of Congress today. But few places in the nation are seeing the tangled implications of what that means—in real time—more vividly than in southwest Oregon, where a handful of rural counties are showing what happens when citizens push the logic of shrinking government to its extremes.

In Curry County, the sheriff’s department no longer has around-the-clock staffing and there may not be enough money to hold local elections.

The Times continued:

Some residents said they thought local governments here could simply self-destruct and shut down in bankruptcy or paralysis, while others saw a window of experimentation and reinvention, and a new path forward through interconnecting government with nonprofits, volunteers and private companies.

A major fiscal variable at play for many counties in southwestern Oregon: steadily declining revenues from timber that had propped up local government budgets for years and a lack of new ways to replace the lost funding.

Some conservative observers have dinged The Times report—one described it as a “failed attack on the anti-tax counties of southwest Oregon”—and say the blame should lie with government bureaucrats who want to “inflict a maximum of pain on you rather than seek the best use of resources they have.” Instead, one writer for a Louisiana-based conservative commentary site suggests that Douglas County residents are better off paying for an Amazon Prime subscription than paying an additional $6 per month to save their libraries, which had been asked of owners of median-priced homes last fall in the failed funding measure.

Libraries, however, aren’t just a physical collection of books, though that’s a common misconception.

In many places, local libraries provide internet access to those who can’t afford it, have staff available to answer reference questions, provide community gathering space and assistance for job seekers and digital skills training.

But libraries in places like Douglas County can’t actually do those things if they don’t enjoy support from the community and elected officials who control purse strings.  

So where does Douglas County stand compared to national sentiments on public libraries?

In the Pew Research Center’s Libraries 2016 report, a large majority of Americans surveyed had high expectations of their local public libraries:

Public libraries, many Americans say, should offer programs to teach people digital skills (80% think libraries should definitely do this) and help patrons learn how to use new creative technologies like 3-D printers (50%). At the same time, 57% of Americans say libraries should definitely offer more comfortable places for reading, working and relaxing.

Two-thirds of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that closing their local libraries would have a “major impact” on their community:

Among those most likely to say that a library closing would have a major impact on their communities: women (74%); those between the ages of 50 and 64 (73%); and college graduates (71%). Those least likely to report that a library closing would have any kind of impact on their communities: those without high school degrees (15% say a local library closing would have no impact on their communities); non-internet users (15%); and those in households earning less than $30,000 (10%).

Those results might suggest that Douglas County is out of step when it comes to national norms for how citizens view their public libraries.

What comes next in Douglas County? That’s hard to tell.

But this much is clear: Those who don’t return their library materials by the end of the month will still face fines next month. The local libraries will need the revenue to reopen, whenever that happens.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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