September 16, 2006 in SatValley

Lid lift necessary to maintain level of library services

Ann Apperson Special to Voice
 

At a glance

» The Spokane County Library District will ask voters on Tuesday to lift the lid on its property tax levy, effectively keeping the tax rate the same at 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for the next three years.

» The district receives more than 90 percent of its revenues from the levy. As property values rise, the increase in tax money going to the district is expected to surpass a state limit.

» Without the lid lift, the rate will likely decrease to 44 cents per $1,000 to keep total revenues within state law. For taxpayers, that would mean a $12 per year savings on a $200,000 house. For county libraries, it would mean a $985,000 decrease in their $7 million budget.

Spokane County Library District is asking its service area voters to make a choice during this primary election: whether or not to approve lifting the 1 percent property tax levy lid for 2007.

The additional funding that would be available from the levy lid lift is designated for very specific purposes, virtually all of them customer-driven: Maintain current service levels over the next few years. Increase library hours. Buy more of the types of material in highest demand, especially audiobooks, and add downloadable books. Increase Internet speed for the hundreds of people who use library computers ever day, as well as their own on our new wireless network. Establish a sufficient level of financial reserves to avoid having to borrow money every year to pay bills between the property tax collections that comprise 92 percent of our revenue.

Without the lid lift, current service levels can’t be maintained in the long term and it won’t be possible to make service improvements. That last statement might be viewed by some as a threat, but it’s reality for an organization whose resources have already been stretched.

SCLD’s board of trustees, after careful consideration of three-year revenue and expense projections, decided to let voters make their choice on their library’s funding and service levels, consistent with the opening sentence of I-747, approved by voters in 2001: “This measure would limit property tax increases to 1 percent per year unless approved by the voters.”

It’s the board’s view that prudent fiscal planning requires looking ahead, evaluating opportunities and risks, and taking positive action to ensure that the library services that people want are available to them when they need them. It isn’t waiting to see what happens and reacting after the fact in a crisis mode. That’s not good management for a business and it’s not good management for a heavily used government service.

Over half of SCLD residents have a library card. In a recent random sample telephone survey in the Spokane Valley area, 73 percent of respondents with a child said that child had visited the library in the past month. Last year more people visited SCLD’s 10 branches than attended events at the Spokane Arena and Opera House combined—a total of 944,132. There were another 265,437 visits to our Web site. And previous surveys show high customer satisfaction levels.

So what’s a levy lid lift? Simply stated, it would allow SCLD to continue its 2006 property tax levy of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2007. That’s the simple part. There’s more.

First, I-747’s 1 percent limit was recently declared unconstitutional and will be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which will probably issue an opinion sometime next year. The State Legislature may act to retain the levy lid even before the Supreme Court’s opinion. It’s impossible to predict what will happen.

Second, the 1 percent limit isn’t really just 1 percent. It’s 1 percent plus property taxes on new construction and increases in value for property assessed by the state. But, the new construction “exemption” is intended to provide funding to serve the increased population without adversely impacting service levels for the people who are already here.

Third, SCLD taxpayers (the 236,000 residents of the unincorporated county, Spokane Valley, and eight of its 11 smaller cities) are making final debt service payments this year on 10-year construction bonds through an additional 6.3 cent levy rate. So even with levy lid lift approval, library district taxes will drop from 56.3 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to 50 cents. If not approved, the rate will drop to about 44 cents next year.

We exist solely to provide the best library services possible, carefully weighing our communities’ needs and requests with the resources available to do so. It’s been 14 years since Spokane County Library District has placed a maintenance and operations funding proposal before voters. It was a carefully considered decision. We hope that voters will use the same careful consideration in making their choice.


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