Library work group recommends public vote

Chemeketa Cooperative Regional Library Service Executive Director John Hunter offered analysis and answered questions from the Library Work Group members at a May 4 meeting. (Charles Glenn/Keizertimes)

A city library work group might be the last place you’d expect to find disagreement over the basic function and purpose of elected officials in city government, but it was front-and-center Wednesday, May 4, as the Library Work Group met for the first and only time.

While the proposed conversion of Keizer Community Library (KCL) into a public library can be enabled through existing federal funds alone for the next three years, it’s the issue of how to pay for it after those funds dry up which created a kerfuffle at the work group meeting May 4: is this something the City Council should simply vote on as elected officials representing their constituents, or should it be put on a ballot for Keizer voters to decide?

On one side are the people who want the issue decided by voters, such as former Mayor Lore Christopher; on the other are people who think a city council vote is all that is needed, such as City Councilor Laura Reid. 

While the meeting didn’t have any genuine disruptions, things got heated enough to prompt Reid to leave the room abruptly after they took a vote to recommend the council put the issue before voters on the next ballot.

Reid, along with City Councilors Dan Kohler and Shaney Starr were tasked by the larger council to examine funding options for sustaining costs the city would incur from maintaining the proposed public library and then deliver a recommended course of action. After voting to elect Kohler as chair and Reid as vice-chair, the work group set the tone for the meeting early by reiterating widespread support for a public library.

“I don’t think there is anyone sitting on this dais right now who doesn’t want a public library,” said Kohler. “The issue is how to get something sustainable that people in Keizer want to have.”

City Councilors Dan Kohler, Laura Reid and Shaney Starr comprised the work group committee, May 4 (Charles Glenn/Keizertimes)

Reid’s argument for having the council approve the fee was that the city has used this process in recent years for both a parks fee and a police fee, so there is precedent for simply having the council “rubber stamp” what would amount to a $1 or $2 fee on Keizer resident’s water bill, which translates into roughly $12 per year since utilities are billed bi-monthly.

“As representatives of Keizer, we represent all the citizens of Keizer – not just the voters,” said Reid. “It might take some analysis, but I’m not sure the demographics of the voters line up with the demographics of the library users – so is a public vote even the best way to do this?”

Reid said a key part of her job was meeting the needs of all Keizer residents, and in her view the library is a basic necessity.  

Kohler had a much different take on the subject of his role as an elected representative.

“I was elected to represent the voters,” said Kohler. “I think this is something that should be put to a vote by the people.”

Kohler said the primary difference between the proposed library fee and the parks and police fees was that the parks and police already existed, whereas Keizer doesn’t yet have a public library.

“If the issue is a new tax or a new fee, I feel like I have to let the voters have a say in whether or not they want to pay for that,” he said.

Reid pointed out Keizer residents already pay a library fee on their taxes and have supported a community volunteer library in other ways for 40 years, so in her view this is already-existing in the same way that the need for a parks and police fee already existed.

KCL board officer B.J. Toewe and CCRLS Executive Director John Hunter presented the proposal at an April 6 City Council work session, and returned to continue their advocacy for the project on May 2.

KCL and CCRLS jointly prepared the original presentation, which formally asked the city for a $135,000 annual operating budget over the next three years through its portion of the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. More than 40 people attended the April 6 meeting to demonstrate their support for the proposal, including educators, librarians and volunteers from all over the region.

A key part of the proposed partnership between CCRLS and KCL over the three-year ARPA window is that it would be a kind of trial period for KCL to meet the requirements laid out in the CCRLS membership charter.  

Hunter and Toewe both think those requirements will easily be met during the three-year assessment. 

More importantly, said Hunter, once KCL becomes a fully-chartered CCRLS member library, it becomes eligible for regional funding through the community college – which he says would largely offset the costs to Keizer taxpayers, and turns what would be a $9 monthly fee into a $1 or $2 bi-monthly fee, instead.

At the May 2 work group meeting, Kohler appeared skeptical the proposed $12 annual water bill tax would cover the costs of a public library after the ARPA funds are gone, but Toewe and Hunter both assured the committee that as a public library, KCL would be eligible for more than $80,000 in district funding assistance, annually.

Toewe said that due to KCL’s current location, they have no immediate plans for expanding. She admitted that in the long term, a Keizer public library would eventually outgrow their current location, but they are focused on the short-term – and she said KCL would likely have to shut down next year unless the plan gets approved.

“We don’t have a big enough facility on which to spend more than $125,000 per year,” said Toewe.  

“What we submitted in our proposal really was the bare minimum that we’ll need,” she said, adding that the total three-year amount had been raised to $395,000 in order to cover the cost-of-living increases during the three-year ARPA window.

The committee took a vote to recommend City Council add a measure on the ballot to allow Keizer residents to vote. Reid expressed her views the next day.

“I was indeed disappointed in the decision to advise the council to put the library funding to a vote,” she said. “This is a decision that should be the responsibility of the council – and by deferring that option to voters, we severely limit our options. If a ballot measure doesn’t pass, that’s the end.”

Reid said that despite her disappointment, she will abide by the committee’s decision and continue working alongside the library board to make the best case to the voters.