If this column title sounds like a Buddhist meditation Koan (a riddle used to focus the mind) you could be right.

So let's get to work on this riddle: in a press release from the office of Jeffrey Kleingartner, communications manager for the Timberland Regional Library, on Sept. 25, 2008, we read:

"The Timberland Regional Library Board of Trustees after much discussion and public input voted in Tenino at its monthly meeting to place a proposition on the February 2009 ballot to ask voters to approve a levy lid lift to restore funding needed to maintain current public library services."

Timberland Library Executive Director and Tumwater resident, Jodi Reng, graciously assisted me in decoding this sentence. But we need to back-track a minute before we start.

Reng explains, "Most big cities have powerful, wonderful libraries; and most small rural communities have small libraries with 500 books on the shelf and after that ... well, too bad."

"But around 1964, Mary Ann Reynolds had a philosophy about libraries that still guides our system. She suggested that we combine the library resources across large geographical areas in order to benefit a collection of small rural communities. Our library system combines the resources of five counties - Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Thurston and Pacific counties - into one system."

Reng goes on, "Reynolds was responsible for this philosophy and for getting some pilot projects started. [A demonstration project from 1964-68 was funded by federal, state and local grants.] Becky Morrison was another amazing woman. She did the politicking to bring this idea together. She went to every county and convinced them of the benefits of an inter-county library district for our rural areas."

Against all odds - small town politics can be tricky territory - Morrison succeeded, and the Timberland Regional Library was created in 1968 by a vote of the residents of the unincorporated areas of our five counties.

The Timberland service area covers 7,000 square miles and serves a population of more than 400,000 residents. In all, 18 cities contract with Timberland for service or have annexed to the district. The system is governed by a seven-member board of trustees appointed by county commissioners, with one trustee from each county and two additional trustees in at-large positions.

What this means is that although my Ocean Park library branch has about 26,000 items on its shelves - nothing to be scoffed at by the way - I have access to a collection of nearly 1.7 million items, books, and materials of all the other libraries in our Timberland system. (A little known fact ... with a Timberland Library card, anyone can secure a Seattle City Library card and can wander those incredible stacks as well.)

I might point out that our nearest rural community neighbors to the south do not have this kind of library system. They have small rural libraries - if they have libraries at all - functioning separately from one another.

In fact, Iver Matheson, manager of the Ocean Park Branch, shared with me that some folks came into the library the other day and said that they had decided to move to our Peninsula, rather than one of the Oregon coastal towns, because of our library system.

But let's return to the heart of the matter. How does this system get financed?

One third of the revenue that supports our library system comes from cities; two thirds of the revenue comes from our own rural regions, mostly in the form of property tax revenue. Originally, taxes from state timber sales were a much larger part of the revenue mix, but that source of income has decreased as our regional timber sales have fallen.

Over the last six or seven years, the proportion of library revenue coming from property tax has risen to about 89 percent. But, at the same time, in the last two years as the housing bubble began to burst, the amount of that revenue has been shrinking just as inflation, gas prices, and other expenses have increased.

For the last several years, Timberland has made up the shortfall in their budget by cutting costs internally and by tapping into their reserves. But they've reached the end of that era - something needs to change.

So their board of trustees made the decision to come back to us - the public being served so well by this learning and information system - to request a change in how the financing is structured.

Now bear with me here. There are two numbers that we need to understand to comprehend how this ballot measure will work. One is the assessment rate and one is the budget amount.

We've always had some budget constraints on how our state funds could be used and how the amount of the budget could be structured. During the 60s and 70s, state budget amount increases were capped at 6 percent; in other words, from one year to the next, the budget could not increase more than 6 percent.

Sometime in the late 90s this percentage of change to the budget amount was decreased to 3 percent. In 2001 another change took place; currently our budget cannot be increased more than 1 percent over the previous year. This 'lid' on the annual budget increase has made it extremely difficult for state-funded organizations to maintain expected service levels, particularly as inflation has been running between 3 amd 4 percent.

And because this lid has capped annual budget amount increases, the assessment rate has actually gone down. In the past, about 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value went to fund our library system. Currently this rate is 33 cents per $1,000.

Even after cost cutting measures, Timberland cannot balance its budget on this assessment rate. They are requesting a possible increase back to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. I say 'requesting' because they may not need this full increase.

Reng indicates that Timberland will create a budget and then determine what the increased assessment rate will be. It may come in around 42 cents per $1,000. Moreover, this new assessment rate won't come into effect until 2010.

Further, Reng says, "We are structuring this ballot measure so that we don't need to come back for an increase for awhile. We anticipate that this request will keep the system funded for 10 years."

Personally, I think the phrase 'levy lid lifting' is unfortunate. The 1 percent state budget constraint stays in place. In fact, the request only brings the assessment rate back to what it was in past years.

Next week, we'll talk more about how this ballot measure could affect your property taxes and how it relates to new construction (another little piece of the puzzle). We'll check in on the Ilwaco library renovation.

In the meantime, one last tale. This past summer, some folks from Norway were traveling our coast with a group of bicyclists. A few of them got separated from the rest and stopped at a Timberland branch for assistance. (I guess people the world over know that libraries are great places to get help.)

One savvy individual decided to log on to the Internet on a library terminal to send an e-mail about their predicament. Meanwhile, in another Timberland branch, a member of the larger group realized they had lost a few cyclists and was at another computer sending an e-mail.

After an exchange of e-mails from separate Timberland branches, a rendezvous point was decided upon and the group was successfully reunited. How do you put a price tag on that library service?

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