UP # 319 Library Levy Proposal

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Urban Politics #319 3/26/12

By City Councilmember Nick Licata

With Newell Aldrich, Legislative Assistant

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

The City Council heard a proposal  today to place a library levy on the August 7, 2012 ballot. The levy would provide $17 million per year for seven years to expand library hours, collections, technology/computers, and maintenance. The levy would begin at the start of 2013, the same time the 2004 Fire Facilities levy ends. The annual cost for the owner of a house with the median assessed value for Seattle of $361,000 would be $52 per year.  Under the proposal, all city libraries would be open on Sundays, and libraries would remain open year-round.

Seattle’s library system has been caught in a budget crunch during the last several years. 95% of the library’s operating budget comes from the City’s General Fund, which makes the library vulnerable to fluctuations in City revenues, which have suffered during the recent economic downturn.

Since 2009 the library budget has been cut by 9%, accounting for inflation. This has resulted in a decrease of 190 operating hours per week, a reduction to the collections budget, cuts in the maintenance and technology budgets, and a week-long closure of the system. The library’s capital maintenance budget is largely funded by Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) revenues, which have declined sharply in recent years with fewer home sales.

At the same time, library usage has increased. Library visits and circulation of materials went up sharply from 2004 to 2009, until operating hours were reduced.

The library faces other long-term pressures beyond declining revenues from the recession.  In 2001 Washington State voters passed I-747, a Tim Eyman initiative that limited property tax increases to 1% per year. The state legislature later adopted it after the State Supreme Court overturned it. The result is that revenues have not kept up with inflation. Adjusted for inflation, operating revenues decreased from 2005 to 2008, before the impact of the economic downturn.

In 1998, Seattle voters passed the $196 million Libraries for All construction bond measure. In 2008, the construction program was completed, expanding service to several Seattle neighborhoods. The expansion, however, required additional operating hours.

The City Budget Office estimates a $5 million operating shortfall for the library system in 2013.

Recognizing the looming shortfall, in November 2010 the Council requested the City Librarian to develop a plan to explore options for library funding, in order to forestall additional cuts. The Seattle Public Library estimates that adjusting to the $5 million shortfall would entail closing 5 branch libraries or closing all branches on Fridays year round, in addition to cutting the collections budget by 50%. In December, 2011 the Council passed Resolution 31345 which set out a timeline for the Library Board to hold three community meetings to hear public input. Public response was large: over 33,000 survey comments were received.

[Thumbnail image]Having libraries open on Sundays was the highest priority listed by the public. In addition, the one-week closure of recent years would stop with this levy. Users could place up to 50 holds, instead of the current 25. $3.8 million would go toward operating hours, $2.5 million to collections, $1.5 million to technology, and $3.7 million to maintenance, in addition to covering the $5 million shortfall to maintain current operations.

A public hearing on the measure will take place on Tuesday, April 3 at 5:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers on the 2nd floor of City Hall at 600 4th Avenue between James and Cherry.

You can review materials from the previous council meetings of the Special Committee on the Library Levy, which met on February 6 and December 12, and watch the meetings on the Seattle Channel for December 12, February 6, and March 23.