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Permanent, Stable Library Funding: Final Steps in a 36-year Journey

Multnomah County Library, OR
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Innovation Summary

In November 2012, Multnomah County voters created a library district to provide stable and permanent funding with the library’s third widely approved funding measure in two years. The outcome reflects an unprecedented coordination of effort and support from the community, support organizations, elected officials, organized labor and library staff.

Problem Statement

Multnomah County Library is the second busiest library in the United States, but it operates on what is essentially temporary funding, which has accounted for up to 66% of the library’s budget in the last few years. Temporary levies have contributed to the library’s funding since 1976. Voter-approved amendments to the Oregon Constitution limit the annual amount of property tax collection on each property. If taxes on a property reach or exceed those limits, the taxes are reduced or “compressed” until the limit is reached. Temporary “local option levies,” like the one that provides most of the library’s current funding, are compressed first. Compression accounts for a loss of nearly 40% of levy funding in the current year’s budget. Together with external increases in operating costs, property tax compression has rendered current funds insufficient to operate libraries at previous service levels. Multnomah County Library reduced hours across all public service locations, shed the equivalent of 43 full-time positions and closed all public locations on Mondays in July 2012. Supporters and members of the community lamented the closures and reductions in service. In addition to explaining the fiscal realities behind those reductions, the library and its stakeholders had to explain the highly complex and technical conditions that led to the cuts and guaranteed indefinite instability without a change to the funding mechanism.


The road to stable funding can be credited to perfectly timed active engagement of, and effective coordination among, a broad and diverse group of stakeholders. In 2009, a citizen committee reviewed Multnomah County’s governing charter and proposed granting commissioners authority to form a library district through the charter if voters approved this method of formation and subsequently voted to create a library district. In November 2010, voters approved granting library district referral authority by 72%. Adverse economic conditions caused commissioners to instead refer a levy renewal in January 2012, at the existing rate. Library allies moved to engage staff and community leaders in the funding conversation. Responding to initial staff wariness, the director and executive leadership attended staff meetings and informal huddles to directly discuss the district proposal. A new weekly internal newsletter addressed developments and concerns. Elected officials and library leaders waged a public information campaign. Community meetings and a public survey garnered 20,000+ responses. Feedback signaled broad support for the immediate referral of a library district. The measure was referred in August 2012. Advocates were proactive in the following months, with major funding and campaign organization provided by the library’s organized labor group, AFSCME, and additional financial support from The Library Foundation, Friends of the Library and community leaders. The county commissioners publicly supported the measure. Even mayoral candidates and Portland City Council members endorsed the library district, despite the fiscal impact passage would have on the city due to the mechanics of Oregon’s property tax system. The library district measure passed with 63% approval. When election results were certified on November 26, Multnomah County Library District became Oregon’s 26th library district.


Overwhelming passage of the library district and earlier measures indicate the community’s support of its library system. Enjoying the nation’s second highest circulation and a dazzling per-capita use rate, this relatively small community demonstrates faith and trust in the library’s brand; a recent survey revealed a 99% satisfaction rating. The library’s efficient materials movement and “Think Yes” service philosophy enhance Multnomah County Library’s reputation as a beloved asset worthy of continued financial investment. Achieving stable funding is a game changer for the library. Previously, supporters and leaders had to muster enthusiasm, energy and capital for funding efforts. The library will now restore services and refill positions. Looking forward, the library can dedicate its collective energy and resources to support for eight school districts, child care and juvenile detention facilities, and homebound seniors. Services will increase for new immigrants and non-native English speakers with additional materials, collection development and staff in four other languages. Multnomah County Library will exceed conventional K-12 support with a proposed media lab and enhanced teen services at its Rockwood location, an area of demonstrated need. The library will also respond to the changing role of libraries by expanding its collection of e-books, actively lobbying publishers for increased e-content access, and potentially hosting e-content in collaboration with authors and smaller publishers. Finally, passage of the library district measure allows for long-range planning. The library can now effectively chart its future course, ensuring that it remains as vital to future generations as those of the past and present.