Multnomah County approves library bond for November ballot

Multnomah County

Big new East County 'flagship' and improvements at six branches included in $405.5 million package

Ruth Shelly, executive director of the Portland Children’s Museum, Vailey Oehlke, Multnomah County Library director; Perry Gardner, Gresham library supervisor and Amy Fellows, the childrens librarian at the Capitol Hill branch, speak to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners about the $405.5 million library bond. (Teresa Carson/PMG)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Loud cheering and applause erupted as the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to put a $405.5 million library bond on the November ballot, part of which will be used to build a big flagship library in East Multnomah County.

Although there was little doubt about the outcome, Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke broke into a big smile, turned to the crowd and pumped her arms in victory after the vote.

“There is so much need in East County,” said Lori Stegmann, the county commissioner who represents Gresham and East Multnomah County, noting she was “so stoked and so happy” to be introducing the bond resolution at the Thursday, March 5, meeting.

If voters approve the bond, it will also pay for rebuilding and expanding six other branches elsewhere in the county. The Midland, Albina, Belmont and St. Johns branches will all be expanded and remodeled.

New and larger libraries will be built to replace the Holgate and Capitol Hill branches.

The library also plans to create a centralized and more efficient materials-handling center to move books and materials around to all the branches. The proposed sorting, storage and distribution facility would be about 45,000 square feet and would cost about $32.6 million. It would make the system more efficient, library executives argue, and would free up space in some of the libraries.

There would also be seismic improvements to library buildings and the branches would be made more accessible for people with disabilities.

Library supporters filled the meeting room and some spoke in favor of the bond, including Ruth Shelly, executive director of the Portland Children’s Museum and Dan Bartholomew, executive director of nonprofit Free Geek.

“We see the greatest need in the Gresham area,” Bartholomew said of the technology programs Free Geek puts on at local libraries.

Gresham resident Maria Delgado, speaking in Spanish with a translator said, the East County libraries “are very good, but they are very full.”

Delgado ticked off services important to East County, including citizenship classes and reading programs in five languages.

Gresham resident Liz McCann said her branch library is “bursting at the seams” and noted that recently 15 kids were turned away from a science program due to lack of space.

Paige Battle, the librarian at Portland’s Grant High School said she and her students rely on the Multnomah County Library for their school work.

“A library card is the most valuable school supply a student can have,” she said.

Nobody spoke against the bond.

The nine-year bond, if passed, will cost homeowners about 64 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value, or about $12 per month in new taxes for a home assessed at $200,000.

The Multnomah County Library System estimates the East County “flagship” is expected to cost around $125.2 million. The location of the flagship has not been decided.

The proposed flagship library in East Multnomah County would be about 95,000 square feet and would rival the Central Library in downtown Portland in size and services. As a comparison, the downtown Portland Central Library has 103,000 square feet of public space. The new flagship would be more than four times the size of the Gresham Library, which is 19,300 square feet.

The area east of Interstate 205 has long been underserved by the Multnomah County Library system.

Forty percent of Multnomah County’s population lives east of Interstate 205 and only 20% of the library’s footprint is there, the lowest ratio of any of the library’s regions.

East Multnomah County has only 0.19 square feet of library space per person, compared to 0.44 square feet for the “north” sector of the county, for example.

Construction on the East County flagship likely would not begin until 2022. All of the work system-wide is projected to be done around 2027.

The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner

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