What really happened with the library plan?

CCRLS says Keizer Cultural Center is too small to house all the needs of a public library.

Keizer is the largest city in Oregon without a public library and a large contingent of residents have been trying to change that for decades.  

The most recent effort involved a proposal for Keizer Community Library (KCL) to join the Chemeketa Community Regional Library System (CCRLS), converting to public status over a three-year period funded through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and an under-$3 permanent monthly service fee.

That plan came to a screeching halt July 5 when the City Council voted not to place a question on the November ballot asking Keizerites if they would pay a small fee on a regular basis for a public library. 

What many people didn’t know at the time is that CCRLS Executive Director John Hunter had sent a letter in early June which, for many, expressed some things which seem contrary to what he had said up to then, and essentially put the kibosh on the whole plan.  

Hunter’s letter was dated June 10. Three days prior, the library work group led by Councilors Laura Reid, Dan Kohler and Shaney Starr met to work out some details for what they thought was going to be a ballot measure in November. Starr, a relatively new city council member, was unable to attend that June 7 meeting in person, but she listened to the audio afterward.

“What I heard on that recording was a statement that there was consensus from the CCRLS that the plan we had was solid and sustainable,” she said. “To say I was surprised reading John Hunter’s document would be accurate. “

“I still have many, many questions for the CCRLS and others about what happened,” said Starr.

KCL board member B.J. Toewe and CCRLS Executive Director John Hunter had been coordinating efforts since April, appearing at several council meetings and work groups to explain the plan and answer questions from the councilors. Both were also in attendance on June 7.

So what changed in those three days? From Hunter’s perspective, nothing.

“I had been in contact with B.J. and others from the beginning, and I was very clear that the proposal they were offering was inadequate,” he said. 

“I was faced with a choice. Either I could come out in public meetings and say ‘John [Goodyear] and B.J., your plan is inadequate, the dollar amounts are inadequate and you need to do better,’ or I could do this work behind the scenes and try and get them to a place that I felt was viable and would not adversely effect existing members.”

Hunter described these efforts as “failing to thread that needle,” and this resulted in his June 10 public recommendation for other member libraries to vote against the Keizer plan.

“[W]hen the proposed Keizer library budget and plan are compared with rudimentary expectations of an adequate budget, and a viable library plan consistent with Oregon library standards, clearly the current plan is inadequate,” wrote Hunter at the end of his June 10 letter to city councilors and member libraries. 

“Therefore, the CCRLS staff would recommend to the Polk, Yamhill, Marion Association (i.e. the member library directors) that they vote not to accept the $1.50 fee plan Keizer Public Library as a member of CCRLS.”

Hunter went on to say that Keizer is not unique in that residents already pay a regional library fee, and said that’s the case throughout the CCRLS region.

“But those [other] cities support their libraries with significant financial investment over and above the CCRLS tax,” he said. “Except for Amity Public Library (serving a population of 1,705), every other CCRLS member invests between $22.79 and $62.42 per capita annually in their library service.”

In an interview July 13, he said that, in truth, a city with a population Keizer’s size would need to be spending close to $1 million annually for a public library, and felt his $2.50 fee proposal was the bare minimum. He said he had communicated this directly with city councilors, and said the same thing to Mayor Cathy Clark and City Manager Adam Brown in a video teleconference on April 16.

The issue of adequate space was also addressed as a problem from the city’s side at the July 5 meeting, when Brown said his team had determined that one or two rooms at the Keizer Cultural Center wasn’t going to be enough to handle the potential storage needs of a full-size public library drop-off location. He said he didn’t feel comfortable going to the voters with so many unanswered questions.

However, when Hunter and Toewe appeared at city council to make their pitch, along with more than 30 library professionals from all over the state in attendance, the proposed service fee was between $1 – $1.50, and it was the same on June 7.

While the issue of space came up many times throughout the Spring, Toewe and the KCL consistently said they felt they could operate successfully as a public library with the current space they had, and that the need for any relocation would be more than a decade away.  

Hunter had consistently recommended a fee higher than $1.50, but he offered no public objections to the plan until June 10.

Former KCL director John Goodyear said he was blindsided by the June 10 letter.

“It’s not just about the money, it’s about his initial support saying this was good, we will accept it, to flipping and making it all about the money,” said Goodyear.

Hunter said that since April, he and CCRLS has consistently suggested a fee that would amount to $400,000 per year, which translates to a roughly $2.50 monthly service fee increase. However, the proposal he jointly-prepared with KCL in April called for less than a $200,000 annual budget.

He also said the current KCL location was inadequate in terms of space and suggested, as a low-cost option, that the city convert the Keizer Cultural Center into a public library building. He said a public library needs enough space to house circulation, reference, collection programs and lounging.

Goodyear said he doesn’t recall any contingency based on limited space before June 10 and doesn’t believe Hunter was as clear as he thinks he was.

“He was very supportive of the plan, initially, and told the council the current library location was acceptable,” he said.

Ironically, Toewe and Goodyear actually agree with Hunter, in that Keizer will need more funds to support a library over the long term, however they both feel the city council acted prematurely on July 5. Toewe hopes the council reconsiders their decision.

“I think $2.50 is a reasonable amount and now the voters won’t even get the choice,” said Toewe. “I hope the council takes this issue up again in the next meeting and puts it on the ballot for November.”

Nobody in Keizer has given up on a public library so far, and Starr thinks there is a way forward, even if it’s not clear yet.

“I think the key for transitioning from a community library to a public library is a solid, agreed upon plan that allows us the opportunity to grow into what Keizer shows it needs and is willing and able to financially support,” she said. “What we can’t have is a target that keeps drastically changing on us as we come down the home stretch.”

Keizer City Council meets again on July 18, where more discussion about this issue is expected to occur.

“A public library would be a brand new city-supported budget item and we have to ensure that we can consistently provide for and meet the requirements and standards set forth by the state,” said Starr. “We can’t just throw something at the wall and hope it sticks.”

Despite the setbacks, Toewe is hopeful that a consensus can be reached. She expressed some frustration over the council’s July 5 decision.

“The City Council and CCRLS are the people with the power, who can make or break this,” she said. “People will come in on Monday [July 18] and say hey this is not fair, you said we’d get a chance to vote and now we’re not going to get a chance to vote.”

Toewe said she doesn’t want to back either the council or CCRLS into a corner, in the hope that an agreement for a public library in Keizer can eventually be reached.

She said people who want to help can email [email protected]