The Oakland Public Library's Main Library on 14th Street. Credit: Pete Rosos

On June 7, Oakland voters will decide whether to extend a parcel tax that’s been an important source of revenue for the city’s libraries, which is set to expire in 2024.

If voters reject the ballot measure to extend the tax, Measure C, the library budget will be reduced by roughly $18 million per year. Under the current tax, single-family homes pay $114 per year, apartments and condos are taxed $78, and non-residential properties are charged $58.

The Oakland Public Library includes the Main Library downtown and 16 branches spread across the entire city. Its centers and programs include the Oakland History Center, African American Museum and Library, Second Start Adult Literacy Program, and the Tool Lending Library.

Since the 1990s, Oakland has patched together funding for its libraries out of the general fund and special parcel taxes. 1978’s Proposition 13 decimated city revenues, and during the 1980s and 1990s, Oakland’s tax base was further damaged by a declining population, stagnant property values, and the relocation of major employers out of the city. 

Things got so bad that by 1992 Oakland had closed 8 library branches. Kathleen Hirooka, a member of the Save Our Library Committee, wrote that year in a letter to the editor published in the Oakland Tribune: “The book budget has dropped 31 percent; the Main Library is not open Sundays; only eight children’s librarians serve a population of 51,000 children, and an estimated 175,000 adults in Oakland are functionally illiterate.”

In June 1994, Oakland voters passed the city’s first library funding ballot measure, a $29 parcel tax that raised additional money on top of what the City Council budgeted from the general fund. When it was set to expire in 2004, voters renewed the tax, now called Measure Q, which had been adjusted upward for inflation. Measure Q also required the city to allot $9 million from the general fund each year for libraries, on top of the parcel tax funds.

In 2018, voters approved a second library funding source, Measure D, which taxes single-family homes at a rate of $75 and apartments and other multi-unit properties at $51 per unit. Measure D, which expires in 2038, expanded the library budget by roughly $10 million per year, allowing for the purchase of new furniture, technology, remodeling, and other needs.

Caleb Smith, a lifelong Oakland resident and member of the Library Advisory Commission, which oversees the use of parcel tax funds and advocates on behalf of library users, said if Measure C doesn’t pass this year, it would massively reduce services.

“Maybe half a dozen branches would have to close if this fails,” said Smith. “It would also decimate our collections funding. We wouldn’t be able to buy new books and maintain our electronic resources, which have become a lot more popular during the pandemic.”

Proponents of Measure C have set up a website and committee to campaign for the measure, and have reported raising $52,000 to date. “Libraries are an essential community resource,” they argue in a statement filed with the City Clerk that will appear in official voter information packets. 

A poll commissioned by Friends of the Oakland Public Library last year showed strong support for extending the parcel tax to fund library operations.

A recent audit of how Oakland used the revenue from its two existing parcel taxes for libraries showed the money was properly accounted for and spent on library services.

No one has filed an argument against Measure C.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.