Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

ENTERPRISE — An effort to save services provided by the Wallowa County Library continues into the new year as supporters rally behind the formation of a political action committee and prepare the next steps for a library district ballot measure.

At a special hearing, the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners passed the approval order Jan. 2 to allow the measure to be placed on the May 15 primary ballot.

Autumn Wilburn is a member of the Wallowa County Library Foundation and treasurer of the Yes for Wallowa County Libraries Political Action Committee. She said if the ballot measure passes it would create a library district that will serve the entire county supported by property taxes, adding no more than $0.65 per $1,000 assessed property value. For example, a $100,000 home would see an increase of $65 on its annual property taxes payable to the county.

Wilburn thanked the commissioners for their approval — an action that saved supporters from having to circulate a petition to get the issue on the May ballot.

“A petition would be prohibitively expensive,” she said.

The next step, Wilburn said, is an open hearing to be held by the board of commissioners Feb. 5 in the Wallowa County Courthouse Thornton Conference Room. The hearing will provide an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the proposed library district, which would combine all of the county’s library resources under one umbrella.

“A large public meeting will allow people to come in and learn more and ask questions,” Wilburn said.

A movement to save the county’s library services began last spring when the county announced it would no longer fund its facility in Enterprise or branches housed at the Troy and Imnaha schools. So far, Yes for Wallowa County Libraries had taken in a little more than $2,000, Wilburn said.

One of the provisions required in order to put the library district on the ballot was receiving approval from each of the county’s city councils and the county commissioners. Wallowa, Enterprise and Joseph city councils all voted this fall to allow their citizens to vote in the May election. Only Lostine’s city council voted to disallow its citizens to cast a vote for or against the measure.

Vikki Knifong, mayor of Wallowa, said she and the council decided to let the taxpayers decide.

“Because it is such a big issue encompassing the whole county, we just felt that it was fair to let everybody weigh in on it,” Knifong said.

Enterprise City Administrator Michele Young said the vote was almost split — four in favor, with three members voting against.

“We didn’t hear from the public, so we (decided) to let the voters choose,” Young said.

The Enterprise City Council was concerned, Young said, that the proposal says the cities will provide all of the maintenance and pay utility costs, while the operation of the libraries will be taken out of the city’s hands and managed by the district.

Dennis Sands, mayor of Joseph, said his council voted to allow its citizens to vote because if they didn’t, the people wouldn’t have any say at all about the library district.

However, there were some concerns.

“Basically our questioning was, we already have a (city) library that we pay for, why would we need to pay a tax for a library when we have one, but (we realized that) some of the services our library offers are actually county programs,” Sands said.

He noted that a library district would create a partnership between the county and the cities.

“The city wouldn’t have to pay for the librarian or the books, and the city’s contribution is the building they are in right now rent free,” he said.

The Wallowa County Commissioners also voted to allow residents living in unincorporated regions of the county to vote.

While the fate of the county library building in Enterprise is uncertain, Wilburn said the services provided by the Wallowa County Library aren’t wedded to its physical location.

“The services can be provided from anywhere, and we can find a place to house the library collection if necessary,” she said.

Besides operating hours in Enterprise, Troy and Imnaha, the county library has 23,000 materials including books, audios and videos and provides outreach like story time for children up to five years of age, preschool science, after-school programs, book boxes for child care sites, free book giveaways and books delivered to homebound citizens. The commissioners agreed to keep these sites operating until they know the outcome of the election.

Mike Crawford is vice chairman of the Wallowa County Library Foundation board. He said he appreciates the community involvement over the past few months and the support of the county commissioners.

“It’s important to have a strong, sustainable library system, which is the goal of the proposed district,” he said.