At the beginning of April, 10 public libraries shut their doors all at once across Douglas County, Oregon. The mass closure of these critical civic institutions is the result of a democratic process in communities where every extra dollar on a tax bill is seen as an affront to personal liberty. The only hope for the future of these libraries rests on volunteers.
Oregon’s public purse has historically been filled by the spoils of logging the timber-rich regions of southern and western Oregon. Douglas County and its neighbors experienced a surge in demand for timber during and after World War II, and a flood of federal cash allowed small communities to provide all kinds of public infrastructure and services. For Douglas County, this included a public library system that would grow to encompass 11 branches.
Logging began to decline in the 1980s, and environmental protections on public land in 1990 sealed the fate of many communities reliant on timber. In Douglas County, federal timber revenues fell from $50 million a year to just several million. Once-free public services began to charge locals for use.
With library services firmly in the sights of further budget cuts, library supporters put together a proposal last fall that would have added about $6 per month to an average tax bill and saved the libraries from closure. This in a county where property taxes are subject to a cap set in 1990 that cannot be exceeded without a public vote, and specific county services like libraries must be funded out of special tax districts.
The taxpayers rejected the proposal, in the process generating a lot of negativity around the purpose of libraries in general and their perceived obsolescence. County authorities are seemingly ambivalent, caught between families and community groups on one hand and a complete lack of revenue on the other. Property taxes have always been one of the most effective and widely used mechanisms for public funding of vital services. This includes schools, roads, energy and waste infrastructure, and critical facilities like libraries and pools.
Thousands of small communities around the world are struggling due to a lost industry, and the only two options seem to usually be hoping for that industry to return, or tightening the purse strings exponentially as the community evaporates. There is a need for creative thinking in places like Douglas County, where an untold number of people have now lost access to essential services.
The many factors playing into this shameful development are summed up by Shane Dixon Kavanaugh, writing for Vocativ:
Just three hours south of Portland, where residents enjoy the fruits afforded by a tech and real estate boom, this rural community of loggers and agricultural workers is preparing to do without a publicly-funded institution considered by many to be as fundamental to American life as schools, paved roads, and the local police. In some ways, the demise of the public library system in Douglas County, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, is the outcome of a perfect storm of factors confronting towns and cities across the U.S. — the slow death of an industry; an exodus of young people and influx of retirees; an explosion of anti-tax fervor; and shifting perceptions on what government and people are willing to pay for today.