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City, county library directors see host of obstacles

Daniel Lander checks his e-mail at the Spokane Valley branch library on Monday. The Valley branch is one of 10 in the Spokane County library district.  (J. BART RAYNIAK)
Daniel Lander checks his e-mail at the Spokane Valley branch library on Monday. The Valley branch is one of 10 in the Spokane County library district. (J. BART RAYNIAK)

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.”

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 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; the city has six.

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.

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