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Our Opinion: Say yes to school bond, library district

Portland voters have significant choices to make in the November election about how to spend their valuable tax dollars on education and culture. Three worthy causes are on the local ballot. In our opinion, two of the funding proposals deserve voter approval, while a third should wait for another day.

Portland Public Schools bond measure: Vote yes.

Portland Public Schools is back with a revised plan to make major improvements to the district’s deteriorating and outdated buildings.

This time, the annual cost to the owner of an average-priced home is slightly more than half of what it would have been if a previous measure had been approved in May 2011. We believe the school district has done a commendable job of listening to its constituents, including its critics, and returning with a thoughtful bond proposal.

At $482 million, the bond measure still constitutes a bold request. The school district, however, will spread the life of the bond across a greater number of years than was proposed for the $548 million measure narrowly defeated last year.

That change, along with the $64 million reduction in the bond amount, lowers the cost to a maximum of $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed property value. For the owner of a home assessed at $150,000, that translates to $165 per year — less than $14 per month. (The average home in Portland comes in at $150,000 for tax purposes, because assessed values are lower than real market values.)

In return for the investment, Portlanders will receive four modernized schools — Roosevelt, Franklin and Grant high schools and the Faubion K-8 School. In addition, bond proceeds would pay for improved safety and accessibility in at least 30 more schools through such things as seismic upgrades and roof replacements. Another 39 schools would see better science classrooms.

The process leading to this bond proposal has been inclusive, and tellingly, some prominent opponents of the 2011 measure are now enthusiastic supporters of this plan. Given that the average age of Portland schools is 65 years, this type of investment is long overdue. Without modernized school buildings, Portland’s attractiveness for families will decline and its economy will suffer. Voters can invest in their own neighborhoods and protect their home values if they vote yes on Measure 26-144.

Multnomah County library district: Vote yes.

The plan to provide permanent funding for one of the nation’s most-loved library systems has been years, if not decades, in the making.

Good news for taxpayers is that the library system — which includes the Central Library and 18 branches throughout Portland and Multnomah County — can be preserved for a relatively low cost. The library district, if approved, would cost the typical homeowner only about $4 per month beyond what he or she already is spending to support libraries.

Multnomah County’s libraries are funded primarily by a temporary levy that must be re-approved every three to five years. Because of quirks in Oregon’s property tax limitation laws, the library doesn’t get the full value of that levy — which means that its funding is continually being squeezed.

Approval of the library district, with a tax rate capped at $1.24 per $1,000 of assessed value, would eliminate the need to hold an election every few years to decide if the county wants to continue having a library system.

Multnomah County’s libraries always rate among the most-used in America. In addition to being centers of research and entertainment for families, they also support education in a variety of ways, including the summer reading program that keeps tens of thousands of children engaged in reading during the time that school is not in session.

It’s true that approval of a library district would cost the city of Portland a few million dollars in diverted tax revenue, due to the phenomenon known as property-tax compression. But consider what the libraries mean to Portland, and what they add to quality of life.

Voters, at least, understand the value of libraries. A county charter amendment to allow a library district received overwhelming support in the November 2010 election. In May, voters also agreed — by a stunning 5-1 margin — to renew the current levy at a rate of 89 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Voters should take the final step by approving Measure 26-143 and establishing a library tax rate that will prove highly affordable for most people, while ensuring that Multnomah County always will have excellent library services.

City of Portland arts income tax: Vote no

We have no objections to the goals expressed in Measure 26-146: restoring arts education in the schools and providing grants to nonprofit arts organizations.

However, we cannot agree with the mechanism behind this measure — a local income tax. Nor do we think it is wise to open up new, highly localized methods of supporting schools when state school funding is supposed to be equalized across all districts.

Measure 26-146, referred to the ballot by the Portland City Council, would assess a $35-per-adult income tax on Portland residents who earn income and live above the poverty level. The measure would raise about $12 million per year to hire arts and music teachers in elementary schools and also to fund grants that would be administered by the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

These are important causes, but we believe Portland voters should think long and hard before opening the door to a regressive local income tax. Having this measure on the ballot begins the discussion of finding better ways to fund arts education and programs. Portlanders, however, should ensure that such a discussion takes place by voting no on Measure 26-146 and asking the city and arts supporters to come back later with an improved plan.