You Gotta Have Soul

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If you’re looking for Seattle’s soul – and that word has been bounced around a lot lately – you need look no farther than the Seattle Library. This city and its citizens have invested in soul, expending finite resources to create one of the most magnificent library systems in the country.

At the heart of the system is the Central Library, an architectural masterpiece that attracts visitors from all over the world. The Central Library connects to 26 branches located throughout our city’s unique neighborhoods. Each branch has its own character, defined by varying cultures and needs.

But the Seattle Library is not composed of buildings and equipment alone. Seattle soul lies in the services that the library delivers. It rests with a staff of librarians and workers, and in the collections, books, and materials. It hums in the hard drives of computers. It lives through access to information, practical homework help, and priceless children’s sections. It is one system, open to people of all ages – regardless of social level or economic status.

Seattle’s libraries receive more than a million visits a year. Members check out hundreds of thousands of books, archives, and e-books. Each year the numbers of library card holders grows by leaps and bounds.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Seattle is finding it increasingly hard to come up with the $50 million or so budgeted for libraries each year. The city has been savaged by the recession, left without reasonable recourse due to extreme limits that hamstring the city’s ability to raise revenues. When initiative-monger Tim Eyman pushed for tax limits, he said municipalities should go to the voters if they need to increase funds.

That, essentially, is what has driven Seattle to ask voters to approve this year’s library levy. It’s not something that anyone at City Hall wanted to propose. But it was either ask for more money or starve the libraries.

Through four years of brutal recession and cutbacks Seattle has managed – through acrobatic fiscal maneuvers and deep cuts to services— to keep libraries functioning. Library workers volunteered for week-long furloughs and reduced wages. The citizens’ Library Board, which, under state law, is responsible for running the libraries, performed feats of magic and managed to keep all the branches open. It’s true some smaller branches have had to reduce hours, but larger branches in each sector were kept fully open.

The little known fact is that, when drawing up its 2012 budget, the Library Board came oh-so-close to throwing in the towel and shuttering two branches. Then came the news that, looking ahead to 2013, the city is facing an additional $40 million budget shortfall and will have no choice but to cut the library budget, possibly by $5 million.

Without additional funding, there will be branch closures. This is not a scare tactic. It’s a fact that must be faced. Until a more stable source of funding can be found (perhaps a change in state law to allow for a special separate taxing district), the easiest way to keep libraries operating is to pass a levy. And that’s what the Seattle City Council and Mayor are proposing.

The seven-year $17 million levy is, in essence, a bridge loan until an alternative revenue source can be found. It’s hardly fair for libraries to have to have their sole source of funding competing with the city’s most urgent needs: police, fire and human services. When city leaders are forced to choose closing community health clinics or reducing library dollars, which does one choose?

Unfortunately, the library levy has opposition. There are a handful of citizens, perhaps misguided, perhaps guided by parsimony, who would have you believe that the library levy is the result of the mayor and City Council “playing games.” They urge a “no” vote on the levy reasoning that rejecting the levy will somehow force the city to find a way to come up with funds. It’s tragically flawed logic that sounds like: “If they have no bread, then let them eat cake.”

The number of false assumptions made by library levy opponents is remarkable for its mendacity. The idea that the levy is the result of “scare tactics” ignores the real reduction in funds available to municipalities. Cities have lost tax revenues and have seen state and federal partners slash support for shared programs.

If the library system is to stay whole and maintain stable funding, the levy is a necessity. It is one of the city’s most valuable – and most vulnerable – city services.

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