Council Begins Work on Library Levy

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Downtown Central Library

On Monday, December 19, the Council unanimously adopted Resolution 31345, setting forth a structure, process and schedule to consider placing a Library Levy on the August 7, 2012 ballot for funding to be used in combination with existing City funding for Library operations and major maintenance.  This is the start of a four month process to consider a levy ordinance, but is the culmination of two years of work on trying to find ways to fully support the Seattle Public Library (SPL) given the City’s current budget dilemma.

The people of Seattle have demonstrated their affection and commitment to the public library system.  Seattle is known as a city of readers – usually vying with Minneapolis as the most literate city in the United States.  In 1998, voters gave overwhelming approval (69%) to the largest library bond issue in the history of the US.  Those bonds replaced, expanded, or renovated every building in the library system, and added several new library branches in underserved areas of the City.  The library bonds were structured to be paid off over time, but with most of the payments taking place in the first ten years.

Attending the openings of renovated or new library branches has been one of the most fun aspects of being on the Council.  At every opening, hundreds of people waited outside the door and surged into the library to see what it looked like and welcome the reopening.

But library buildings can only serve the community if they have librarians, books and other materials, computers, and funds for building maintenance.  And the problem is that, even while the Seattle Public Library has been on the cutting edge of new technology and innovative service delivery, the City budget has lagged behind in our ability support library services.  Despite the importance of libraries, they have a hard time competing with public safety and human service programs when budgets are tight.  And, because of the Eyman initiative limiting the growth of the City’s property tax collections to 1% per year without a public vote (far behind inflation and population growth), when a recession hits the City has had to cut library budgets despite our interest and support for library services.

In the 2002-2004 recession, library hours and collection budgets were cut and libraries were closed for two weeks a year.  While the Council restored much of the cuts in succeeding years, we were never able to get to an optimum level of funding.  Then the 2008 recession hit, and again there were staff and collection budget cuts and a one week annual closure.  With 2013-2014 budgets looking very challenging, any additional cuts would require the closure of branches.

Recognizing this, in 2009, the Council approved a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) asking the Seattle Public Library to research several possible alternative sources of funding, including the possibility of creating a Library District like King County has, which would take library services off the City’s general fund.  However, it turns out that the City is precluded by state law from having a Library District, and SPL reported back that the most feasible option would be to go to the voters for a levy that would support part of the library’s services and take pressure off the City’s general fund.  In 2010, the Council adopted this report and asked SPL to develop a proposal for an outreach and development plan that could lead to a 2012 library levy.

As a result of this careful and methodical process, we are now ready to take the next steps and go to the public to ask them what such a levy should include.  Our goal is not only to restore the services that have been cut back due to budget constraints, but to also include funding for a new standard of excellence and service.  We anticipate that this will require between $10 and $20 million annually, and have asked SPL to give us a range of options and identify what the public is most interested in seeing.

Seattle Public Library held community meetings in January to provide an overview of library use and discuss options for improving customer service in the four essential service areas: collections, library hours, computer access, and building.  For more information on the community meetings, or to comment on the library’s future, visit and select “Libraries for All: A Plan for the Present, A Foundation for the Future,” or call 206-386-4636.

The Council expects to consider SPL’s report and begin considering specific levy proposals in March, and to vote on a final proposal in mid-April.  We are looking forward to finding a way to ensure great library services for all of Seattle.