The Battle of the Book Worms: Who Should Pay for “Free” Public Libraries?

By Christopher Robinson, John A. Charles Jr., and Kathryn Hickok

When Jackson County, Oregon faced millions of dollars in budget shortfalls in 2006, the county eliminated funding for public libraries and closed them. Shortly afterward, the county decided to reopen the libraries―accepting competitive bids for operations.

Now Multnomah County Library is at a crossroads in the way its future revenue will be generated. The County Commissioners want to create a Multnomah County Library tax district. This would make the library an independent taxing entity.

A library tax district is not the only way to stabilize the budget. Contracting out library operations like Jackson County could reduce costs while improving services. It is also possible to generate revenue through small user fees rather than generalized taxation.

While many library purists argue that user fees conflict with the concept of “free” public libraries, it is important to remember that the service is not actually free, and property-tax-based levies hit lower-income people the hardest. Some group of people always pays, so the question is which group and on what basis? Small user fees could give library managers strong incentives to provide more services highly valued by patrons, generating more revenue. That would make library patrons and managers better off.

Multnomah County Library is a valuable community asset. Budget constraints do not have to mean reduced services. Competitive bidding and user fees could reduce costs and stabilize funding for the library system without raising taxes on residents.

Christopher Robinson is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center. John A. Charles, Jr. is President and Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade.

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