City Council works to finalize library ballot measure

KCL board member B.J. Toewe and CCRLS Director John Hunter have appeared at every meeting and public hearing for the library since April.

One could be forgiven for thinking Chemeketa Community Regional Library Service Director John Hunter’s full-time job is advocating for Keizer to have a public library – or that Keizer Community Library board member B.J. Toewe accompanies him wherever he goes. The pair have appeared at no less than six council meetings and work sessions as subject matter experts, including a June 7 special work session organized to develop an upcoming ballot measure and decide on the dollar amount that will be put to a vote.

In May, City Council voted to authorize a ballot measure for the November general election which will essentially put the issue of a public library and its funding before the voters. This decision was unpopular with many in Keizer, including Toewe, who remains concerned that people who vote and people who use the library might not be in the same demographic.

The library plan would convert the existing community library into a CCRLS member-library, with all the benefits that go with that, at a cost of approximately $385,000 over a three-year trial period. These funds would be used to hire at least one full-time librarian as well as covering the current library’s operating costs as it transitions to a public format. Most of the KCL funding prior to this year came from private donations. In a May work session, Toewe said those funds have essentially dried up due to rising costs and KCL would be forced to close next year unless it can be established as a public organization.

Part of the requirement for KCL to become “KPL” is that it must receive the majority of its funding from its city or county. The current plan dips into the city’s $8 million ARPA allocation to fund the initial $385,000, which wouldn’t impact taxpayers directly. However, the burden shifts from ARPA to the city when those funds run out, and paying for a public library in perpetuity means taxes or fees of some kind.

Offsetting this cost is one of reasons Hunter appears at these meetings so often. As a member library, Keizer would be eligible for a great deal in formula-based reimbursements from the CCRLS system each year – as much as $100,000 regularly, and possibly more.

“I’ll can throw a real number at you,” said Hunter. “For example, in Independence, their city revenue is $470,000, and their formula-based reimbursement was $60,000 last year.” By comparison, Keizer’s revenue last year was $6.1 million in property taxes alone.

He also had a warning for the council, which would put the city – under this plan – at having the highest ratio of reimbursements-to-public funding in the state. All of this requires some planning, he said – citing Salem’s unexpectedly-low reimbursement amount last year.

“When considering formula-based reimbursement, it’s important to build yourself a cushion, because there is no guarantee that the reimbursement will be a set amount,” said Hunter. “Traditionally it hasn’t fluctuated by a great deal – COVID was obviously unprecedented.”

While the work session was ostensibly looking at three different funding options which would add either $1, $1.50, or $2 to the city’s Water Fee in order to cover the cost of the library in the post-ARPA era, Toewe made a point of saying that the original ask of $1 simply wasn’t going to be enough, and she recommended the council go with the $2 option.

She said the KCL board had met and discussed concerns voiced by Councilor Dan Kohler and others that the initial $1 ask was not going to be enough. Ultimately they agreed with Kohler and decided on recommending one of the two higher amounts.

Kohler, who chaired the original task force formed to analyze the proposal, expressed some surprise at this news, and asked what had changed from the original proposal.

“I really have come to the decision that people are going to be in two camps,” she said. “They are either going to support the library or they’re not, and I don’t envision $12 per year, per household versus $24 per year, per household, as a make-or-break scenario for anyone. I think the two-dollar scenario allows us to build a real program,”

She said that as a member library, Keizer would be a drop-point for many of the 1.4 million collection of books and media in regional circulation, so eventually a store-front would be needed simply for storage. She said they had explored some options, but for now they intend to stay in their location at the Cultural Center.

“We’re not thinking in terms of a big library building,” she said. “I think that would be pretty far down the road and would require us to be a library district, anyway. I don’t see anything like that until after 2028.”

Toewe said the $2 Water Fee hike would fund both a full-time adult librarian as well as a full-time or full-time-equivalent children’s librarian.

“In my unbiased opinion, that’s where you really get the bang for the buck,” she said. “A children’s librarian would make a huge difference.”

She said KCL currently has a Spanish language story-time for young children, and while there have always been some children attending, sometimes it can unexpectedly explode in popularity.

“We had 17 Spanish-speaking children in our class tonight,” she said.

Once the $1 per month amount was ruled out, the council decided to approach voters with the two remaining amounts as level-of-service options, comparing and explaining what voters would receive for each. They will also be putting together a timeline for the project, going forward – with a public hearing to be scheduled for the July 5 council meeting.

Clark was asked if a final decision would be reached at that July 5 meeting, and the mayor replied that she expected that to be the case if they intend to get the issue on the November ballot.