By Midge Pierce

Multnomah County Library officials are forging ahead with a measure on the November ballot during a time when household finances have already been impacted by the pandemic.

They say the measure is more important than ever with COVID-19 social distancing, virtual learning resource demands and growing economic inequities.

Ballot Measure 26-211 is mostly targeted for a new, 95,000 square foot flagship library in East County, similar in size to the downtown Central Library.

The expansion of SE’s Belmont Library is part of the plan that includes renovating six other branch libraries, adding gigabit speed internet to all libraries, creating a central materials handling and distribution center to increase efficiency, repainting and furniture replacement.

What it will not do is provide immediate re-openings and access in the near future.

While frequent users support improvements outlined by the levy, property owners who bear the brunt of the cost and renters who fear landlords might use it to raise their rents have both expressed concerns about its impact, especially at this time.

The public input process transpired in 2016 when the economy was more robust. The measure is intended to secure approximately $387 million, down from $400 million.

The cost to property owners would be between $61 and $68 per $1000 of assessed property value. Multnomah County Library says that based on a median assessed value of approximately $199,000, the annual per home cost will be $134. Property owners can review their assessments and determine what it will actually cost them.

A frequent complaint is that estimates do not factor in the rising value of assessed property that increases the hit to individual pockets.

Library officials contend the justification is solid. SE’s Belmont is one of the busiest libraries in Multnomah County. It is also one of the smallest. Describing it as barely bigger than a convenience store, library spokesperson Shawn Cunningham says its “space deficit” clearly illustrates the need for expansion.

With only 4,259 square feet of public space, Belmont has had to deny up to 70 percent of requests for its free public meeting space and has turned away young children during its capacity-filled story hours.

Over the past year, Belmont Library had more than 230,000 visits, hosted 862 programs and filled more holds than any other library in the county. It is currently open with a table for holds-only. Book returns are taken through a slot on the building’s Yamhill side.

Cunningham indicates that, for the foreseeable future, Belmont may be unsuited for service beyond hold pick-ups. He assures, however, that it will remain a secure drop-off spot for November election ballots.

The past six months of semi-lockdown have presented Multnomah County Library with difficult transitions. After they indicated it could not support the library’s 600 person workforce indefinitely, it floated a plan to layoff some 80 positions during the pandemic.

The library union, AFSCME local 88, balked. The library then promised no union staff would lose jobs and all youth librarians would be retained.

To avoid significant layoffs, all but 26 positions are being reassigned to work that includes the county’s pandemic response efforts, according to spokespeople.

The library says it is refocusing priorities to serve those most deeply affected by COVID-19 by adding services to support remote learners, educators, job seekers and disadvantaged communities.

Library fines, considered a usage barrier for many patrons, were forgiven earlier this year. That move cost the system some $500,000 a year.

“This has been a time of much uncertainty,” said Cunningham. “We’re working hard to be flexible and nimble, so that the library emerges from this moment better equipped to serve our community in all the ways it needs, far into the future.”

For more information visit multcolib.org/about/planning-library-spaces.