May 20, 2010 in City

County throws life raft to law library

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane County commissioners gave their insolvent law library a cash infusion this week and held out the possibility of a larger bailout.

The library has $75,129 in past-due bills on a contract for legal research materials that officials say is too expensive and unpredictable – and can’t be canceled.

Commissioners unanimously agreed to give up a $3 portion of filing fees from Superior Court civil and probate cases.

State law allows up to $20 from each filing fee to be directed to law libraries. So far, the Spokane County Law Library has received only $17. Based on court filings so far this year, the additional $3 would add $12,768 to the $150,000 anticipated this year.

The change wouldn’t take effect until July 1, so the annual increase would be $25,536 if case filings remained constant.

Librarian Cynthia Lucas told commissioners Tuesday that she hopes to pay off the overdue amount by the end of next year if she can negotiate a favorable payment plan and obtain cheaper service next year.

Lucas said the average $12,000 monthly bill for Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw service “is way too high.”

She said the fees are three times as much as the company was charging Pierce County in 2007 for the “exact same” service. Several other counties also have said they were getting a better deal, Lucas said.

However, it is difficult to know whether Spokane County is being gouged. Westlaw customers are required to sign contracts that forbid disclosure of fees unless compelled by law.

Westlaw’s bills have outstripped the law library’s revenue, which comes mostly from court filing fees.

This year’s $220,000 library budget anticipates $150,000 from Superior Court filing fees, $64,000 from District Court filing fees and $6,000 from other fees. The library already is getting its maximum District Court earmark of $7 each for various filings.

Jim Emacio, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, said Thomson Reuters recently threatened to cut off service if the overdue bills aren’t paid. He said the company also refused to let the county out of its two-year contract before it expires at the end of the year.

Lucas said she fears Thomson Reuters will refuse to negotiate a payment plan for the back debt unless the library signs a new contract.

If that is the case, Richard said, it would be “prudent” to give the library a low-interest loan from the general fund – if not more.

“It may require a bailout, quite frankly,” he said.

Richard is one of five trustees who govern the library.

A 1919 state law required counties with more than 8,000 residents to create law libraries. Spokane County did so by adopting a private law library in the Paulsen Building, where it remained until last year.

County commissioners moved the library to new quarters in the county’s Gardner Center Building, 1033 W. Gardner Ave., when Paulsen managers asked the library to start paying rent.

Statistics show that use of the library has been falling steadily since at least 2006.

Lucas counted 3,664 users from the legal community and 739 with no connection to law firms in 2006. The numbers dropped to 1,464 and 292 in 2009.

In the first quarter of this year, patrons included 111 from law firms and 80 do-it-yourselfers – fewer than two visitors a day on average.

With a full-time librarian and a part-time assistant, the library’s labor costs alone are budgeted at $78,236 this year.

Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza, chairman of the library trustees, said use of the library is declining because most lawyers have online reference materials in their offices.

Cozza said he thinks the library still provides a public service, especially to laymen.

However, he said, “Certainly an argument can be made that it represents kind of a relic of another age.”

There may be more cost-effective approaches, such as helping regular public libraries provide more legal reference materials, Cozza acknowledged.

“It may very well be something that ought to be looked at, that probably hasn’t been greatly examined for a number of years,” he said.

But that would be a job for the Legislature.


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