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EDITORIAL: Public libraries are investments in social equality

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Jul. 30—Astoria and Warrenton are advancing ballot measures for the November election that would finance improvements to public libraries.

Libraries are investments in social equality, places where knowledge is shared, not segregated. Equal access to information can help erode barriers tied to race, income and class. Learning something new, or being exposed to different ideas, can help unlock potential.

But even if you never step foot in a public library or fail to appreciate their value, they are brick-and-mortar assets that we collectively own and have an obligation to maintain.

In Warrenton, the city will ask voters to raise a tax levy for the library from 33 cents to 38 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The 5-cent increase would generate nearly $1.5 million over five years and help pay for operations, community programs, library staff and extended hours.

Voters approved a substantial increase in the tax rate — from 9 cents to 33 cents — in 2017 when the Warrenton Community Library moved from Hammond to a larger space on S. Main Avenue downtown.

In Astoria, the situation is a bit more complicated.

The City Council is looking to voters to clarify the scope of a renovation at the Astoria Library on 10th Street that has dragged on for nearly a decade.

The $8 million bond measure would help pay for a $10.6 million renovation. The tax rate is estimated at 57 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

City leaders have emphasized that an architect’s designs for the library are conceptual and will be subject to public feedback if the bond measure is approved. But the renovation would likely involve larger windows for more natural light, removing the mezzanine, opening up the basement, improved reading rooms and more inviting meeting spaces.

Perhaps more importantly, the improvements would make the entire 55-year-old building — designed in the Brutalist-style by prominent architects Ernest and Ebba Wicks Brown — accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act and repair aging infrastructure.

Back in 2019, when we urged the city to essentially start over on the Astoria Library, we called the renovation plan “a compromise of a compromise.” The library foundation was unable to raise much money from the private sector for the project. We feared voters would not support a bond.

Three years later, the only thing that appears to have changed is the City Council’s willingness to let voters settle the matter.

Mayor Bruce Jones, who is not running for reelection in November, framed it correctly: “If the voters choose not to support the bond for the library, then we’ll move forward on the $2 million renovation using funds in hand. But in either case, this council will come to a final resolution and we’re not going to punt it to the next council.”

The city has released polling data that indicates a majority of voters would support the bond measure in November. We worry, though, that library advocates will oversell the renovation plan or make promises that could be hard to keep. Already, in the few weeks since the bond measure was announced, library advocates have been drawn into a debate over whether there will be the same number of browsable stacks as there are today.

In our view, Astoria missed an opportunity when the City Council voted 3 to 2 in July 2016 against a new library with the potential for housing at Heritage Square. That same night, the council rejected a stripped-down expansion of the library into the parking lot along Exchange Street.

At the time, we called those actions “small thinking.” But even the most cynical among us didn’t think we would still have an empty pit at Heritage Square and the same library all these years later.

Voters have approved recent bond measures for a new county jail and for public schools in Seaside, Astoria, Warrenton and Knappa, along with higher tax levies for the Clatsop County Fairgrounds and for fire protection in Cannon Beach and Knappa.

Library advocates in Astoria should focus their message for the November election around improving accessibility and repairing aging infrastructure. Seeing the library as an asset to maintain — rather than an aspiration, as we might prefer — could make the difference.