June 21, 2010 in City, News

Libraries compare notes on merger options

By The Spokesman-Review
 

An informal study shows consolidation of the Spokane and Spokane County library systems would face big financial, logistical and political obstacles.

That may explain why no one so far is proposing a merger.

Even under a best-case scenario, there’s not quite enough money to annex the city library system to the Spokane County Library District and maintain current service levels.

The best case shows a $107,600 shortfall next year. The worst case would be a deficit of nearly $2 million.

Neither scenario addresses the cost of integrating catalogs and incompatible computer systems.

Nor is there an answer to the question patrons on both sides of a merger would ask: “What’s in it for me?”

Directors of the two systems emphasize that consolidation is not under active consideration. Rather, they wanted to be able to answer questions if asked.

“Mayor (Mary) Verner has talked about regionalization of various government services, and libraries are on the list,” said Spokane Public Library Director Pat Partovi.

Library consolidation has been discussed periodically at least since the 1970s, but is not high on Verner’s agenda, Partovi said.

“Our board hasn’t gotten anything at all from the city, even proposing to talk about it,” said Michael Wirt, director of the Spokane County Library District.

District trustees aren’t pursuing the issue on their own, Wirt added.

“We just thought it made sense to investigate it a little bit and be able to answer questions,” Partovi said.

Wirt said he and Partovi “don’t intend to do anything with it at this point except to have it available if anybody asks.”

Before 2009, the issue was mostly academic. State law didn’t allow cities of 200,000 or more to be annexed into county library districts. But the Legislature raised the threshold to 350,000 to accommodate the city of Renton and the King County Library District.

Wirt said the study is “just a ballpark estimate” of a combined budget, not a “comprehensive analytical report that you would see coming out of a consultant’s study.”

Partovi and Wirt started with the assumption that service would have to be equal throughout an expanded district. And that the library district’s five trustees, appointed by Spokane County commissioners, wouldn’t allow any merger that reduces service for existing patrons.

Consequently, the study calls for the city’s $4.62-a-year per capita spending on materials to be raised lifted to the library district’s $5.59. It also calls for city branches to be open longer to match comparable district branches.

Wirt and Partovi found that overall per capita spending is nearly equal: $38.53 a year in the district; $38.52, in the city.

But the two systems have different approaches to service, based largely on geography.

“They’re trying to serve more branches, so they’re buying more copies of fewer titles,” Partovi said of the county. “They have a whole distance issue that we don’t have.”

The county district has 10 branches; : Airway Heights, Argonne, Cheney, Deer Park, Fairfield, Medical Lake, Moran Prairie, North Spokane, Otis Orchards and Spokane Valley.

Tthe city has six: Downtown, East Side, Hillyard, Indian Trail, Shadle and South Hill.

City patrons who can’t find what they want at their nearest branch may go to another branch more easily than, say, a Fairfield resident might go to Deer Park for a certain title.

While the district tends to have more copies of popular titles, the city library system has a broader collection.

The city’s downtown library is in a class of its own. It boasts government documents and special collections, such as its Northwest Room history section, that are unmatched in the region.

Recognizing that, the study proposes to have the downtown branch open 64 hours a week, seven days a week, instead of 54 hours over six days.

Open hours at city branches other than downtown would rise from 223.5 hours a week to 328. District branch hours would remain unchanged at 474 hours per week.

Wirt said the breakdown is based primarily on usage. Except for Downtown, the city’s branches were assigned the same hours as comparable district branches.

For example, Wirt said, the city’s South Hill and Shadle branches are comparable to the district’s North Spokane branch, so the study has them going from 54 hours a week over six days to 64 hours over seven days.

The city’s East Side branch compares with Airway Heights. So the study has East Side open 28 hours a week over three days instead of its current 22.5 hours over five days.

The city’s Hillyard and Indian Trail branches – comparable to the district’s Argonne branch – are assumed to go from five days and 22.5 hours a week to six days and 54 hours.

Given those assumptions, the study ponders whether voters will agree in the Aug. 17 primary election to restore the district’s property tax rate to its statutory maximum of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The rate has slipped slightly below 45 cents per thousand because of a 1 percent limit on government budget increases.

Using current assessed values and adding in nontax revenues, income would be more than $1.5 million short of the amount needed to operate the city and county systems together this year at district spending levels.

The county assessor’s office hasn’t determined the overall assessed values for next year’s property taxes, but most home values are dropping.

If overall values stay flat instead of falling and the library district’s levy rate is restored, a combined library system would be only $107,600 in the hole next year, according to the library directors’ study.

If the levy lid lift is rejected and overall assessed values fall 10 percent, a combined library system would face a $1.97 million revenue shortfall.

“If we had the 50 cents, that would maybe work,” Wirt said.

If assessed values were to rise in the city relative to the district, consolidation “might be something that the two boards would want to consider,” Partovi said.

A dedicated property tax might bring stability to the city library system, but it’s risky to rely entirely on property tax, Partovi said. City funded libraries can fall back on a variety of taxes, including sales utility taxes, when property taxes are depressed by sour markets.

In the current sour market, however, the already trimmed city library system is facing more and potentially disproportionately large cuts.

Joining the county library district – as most of the smaller cities in the county have done – would free up city of Spokane revenue for police and potholes. It’s not clear, though, that Spokane voters are in any mood to increase their property taxes up to 50 cents per thousand.

It’s also not clear why district patrons would risk straining their system when they already have access to Spokane libraries.

Roughly equal numbers of city and district patrons use each other’s libraries under an arrangement that Wirt and Partovi say is mutually beneficial. People who live near the boundary can go to the nearest library, reducing pressure for new branches.

Any merger would require a request by the Spokane City Council, agreement by county library district trustees and simple-majority approval by Spokane voters.

Wirt said an annexation also would require an interlocal agreement with the city on a variety of issues not covered by state law.

Examples include the transfer of city library assets and one-time costs such as computer integration and the one-year gap between annexation and receipt of property taxes from city residents.

“It isn’t a simplistic issue,” Wirt said.

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