The way has been cleared for the bulk of Wallowa County to vote on whether to create a special taxing district next May to fund libraries.
City councils in Wallowa, Joseph and Enterprise have approved resolutions including those cities in the proposed district boundaries. Lostine City Council voted to opt out.
The decision was a split vote in Lostine. Several Lostine residents are working with the council to encourage a second look at the issue.
The district idea came before the Enterprise City Council Wednesday night.
Among concerns of the Enterprise City Council were that a tax for libraries will put the city closer to a taxation ceiling imposed by the state on municipalities.
Ballot Measure 5, approved in 1990, states that no taxing district may collect more than $10 per thousand of property assessed value. The current tax rate in Enterprise is $8.90 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation.
If the proposed library district is approved, the tax rate would climb to $9.57 per thousand in Enterprise, leaving just 43 cents per thousand for funding of a previously discussed countywide recreation district or fire district.
There were also misgivings about the city library’s ability to carry on with all the programs the county now provides. Some council members said they were not aware that when the county library goes away, 900 outreach programs to children, families, elderly or homebound might be cut down to 100 or less. Also the SageCat interlibrary loan system would no longer be available to residents outside city limits without purchasing a library card.
Council members also expressed concerns with the remarkable speed at which the Wallowa Valley Library Foundation was moving.
Spokesperson for the Foundation, Autumn Wilburn, explained that the timeline is driven by the procedural requirements of state law for getting on the May 15, 2018 ballot.
Approval of the ballot measure in May will avoid the negative consequences of the county library closure because taxes can be collected to operate the libraries in 2018.
Council members said they had only recently received the complete feasibility study for the proposed district and felt rushed to make a decision without enough information.
Foundation president Autumn Wilburn and former foundation president Kim Witherrite, along with a contingent of Foundation board members, library professionals and citizens fought to convince the council to allow them the six months additional time needed to explain the district plan to the public. Numerous meetings, possible direct mailings and other plans are being considered.
“I’m not asking you to support the library district, I’m not asking you to oppose it, I’m just asking you to uphold the basic tenet of democracy and allow your citizens to have the right to vote,” said Wilburn. “Approval of the resolution to be in the boundaries of the proposed district will allow the process to go forward and give us six months to educate people, to allow them to hear the pros and cons, to allow for public meetings and public discussions.”
Enterprise had sent out nearly 1,200 surveys in its recent water bills asking for public input on the library district. Respondents weighed in 77 for and 130 against moving forward, but council member Micah Agnew argued that given that the council had not even received the feasibility study when the survey was distributed, and given what the council was learning Wednesday night, it was probable that the responders to the survey did not fully understand the consequences of losing the county library.
“What really is our goal?” Agnew asked. “We are being asked to be included in the zoning. I’m concerned that our intention wasn’t met (with the survey) because the public doesn’t have the information we have. Our intention met with flaw. I wouldn’t be comfortable making a decision based on our survey results ... the bullet points as I read it were ... ‘pay more taxes or not.’”
Council member Larry Christman agreed that lack of information was a serious problem.
“I think that is one of the problems now ... that the people have not been educated as to the pros and cons of this program,” he said
Council member Ashley Sullivan agreed that the information thus far provided to the public was simply not enough.
“If we could have just had the entire citizenship of Enterprise in this room tonight, I think we would have a different answer on these surveys,” she said.
City Administrator Michele Young also said questions she received from the public indicated that they had no idea how interwoven the city and county libraries were.
Council members and the public did not seem to understand that without the county library, even Enterprise City Library services would be dramatically curtailed.
Without the financing of a district, library hours would most likely not be expanded in Enterprise. As it stands now, the Enterprise library is closed Fridays and through the weekend.
In the final vote, council members Chris Pritchard, Dave Elliott and Mayor Stacey Karvoski voted “no” and Micah Agnew, Larry Christman, Jenni Word and Ashley Sullivan voted “yes.”
Included with his vote, Christman lectured the library foundation representatives, telling them to address an issue that he found astonishing and offensive: the proposal that the city library be turned over to the district while the city continued to pay for maintenance and wages.