April 26, 2009 in City

Balancing the books

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane is well behind most Washington cities in the hours of operation at its libraries.

That service level will fall even further if the Spokane Public Library is forced to ax 4 percent of its budget – as is under consideration by city leaders.

Library Director Pat Partovi said 4 percent of the budget amounts to about $320,000. That could mean the closure of one of the system’s three smaller branches, she said.

“We are already running at what I would call a skeleton crew,” Partovi said.

During the city’s last severe budget cut in 2004, library hours were cut by about 40 percent. Hours were expanded slightly last year by reopening the South Hill and Shadle branches on Mondays.

Mayor Mary Verner has asked department leaders to plan for a 4 percent cut from the amount it would take to maintain current service and staffing levels.

Spokane’s Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley stressed this week that the across-the-board-cut strategy would be a last resort.

City leaders have begun talking to union leaders about contract concessions that would reduce or eliminate the need for layoffs and service reductions.

“There are a great number of alternatives,” Cooley said.

Richard White, a member of the Spokane Library Board of Trustees, said the system has discussed the closure of a branch as a “worst-case scenario,” but he added: “It’s premature to decide how we would respond.”

When the last cuts were considered, library staff recommended the closure of all three small branches – East Side, Hillyard and Indian Trail. Instead, trustees opted to trim hours across the six-branch system. The three smaller libraries currently are open 4 1/2 hours a day, five days a week.

“We had a very strong message from the community that they did not want us to close any branches,” said White, who is a Spokane County District Court judge.

Joy Hart, chairwoman of the East Central Neighborhood Steering Committee, said the smaller branches are essential. Besides books and periodicals, they provide low-income people a place to use computers, a service that allows them to apply for jobs, she said.

“We need to make sure that every neighborhood has a library,” Hart said. “The people in our neighborhood may not have the resources of a vehicle or other transportation to get to another library.”

Talk of possible reductions is happening just as library demand is rising.

Use of most library services has increased over the last several months. Library officials speculate that the rise results from residents using library resources to look for jobs and as a source of cheap entertainment.

“It’s unfortunate that in this economy, something that’s free for the users would be reduced,” White said.

Partovi said cutting a branch would be a difficult decision.

“It’s probably more important than ever – with parents working – to have libraries in the neighborhoods,” Partovi said.

Over the years, leaders have considered solving Spokane’s library woes by consolidating with the independent Spokane County Library District.

A bill that won approval this year in the Legislature makes it easier for Spokane and other cities to join library districts. Previously, most larger cities were prohibited from doing so.

Partovi said that although the law affects Spokane, it was pushed on behalf of Renton, which is seeking to join King County’s library district.

“It gives us more options without forcing us to do anything,” Partovi said of the new law.

She said a limit to the amount of property taxes library districts are allowed to collect still could make joining Spokane County’s system undesirable.

Still, the Spokane County Library District’s budget appears to be more stable.

Beth Gillespie, district communications specialist, said no cuts in service are expected in the county’s 10 libraries in 2010. The district benefits from having a separate tax base that can’t be siphoned by other municipal needs, like police and fire, Gillespie said. It’s also aided by collecting 94 percent of its revenue from property taxes, which remain relatively stable during downturns.

A consolidation would require extensive studies and planning, Gillespie said.

“There hasn’t recently been a large conversation about it,” she said.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.

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