November 19, 2010 in City

Vestal: Worth of a library weighed

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Rebecca Pippenger reads an East Side Library book titled “10 Little Rubber Ducks” by Eric Carle, to 3-year-old students at the Southeast Day Care Center on Thursday. Children from the day care visit the library, which is just steps away, once a week. The city of Spokane is considering closing the branch. “We will have some very sad kids,” Pippenger said. Listening to the story are, from left, Azaryiah Hernandez, Adrian Brian, Kristina Gonzales, Tyree Lay (pointing), Ethan Koplan (in red) and Oscar Overholser (front).
(Full-size photo)

The kids at Southeast Day Care Center likely aren’t very tuned in to the economic woes threatening their next-door neighbor, the East Side Library.

But they were sure tuned in Thursday to “How Do Dinosaurs Say Good-Night?” And today they’ll make the short walk across the parking lot for their weekly trip to the library. Every Friday – unless the Library Board closes the branch.

If that happens, “we will have some very sad kids,” said teacher Rebecca Pippenger.

The center’s director, Sug Villella, says if the city closes East Side, it won’t be a simple matter of residents driving downtown to the main library. She certainly won’t be walking 50 kids there every Friday. And many families in the neighborhood – one of the city’s poorest – don’t have the time, money or wherewithal to go downtown or to the South Hill branch.

There has been a lot of discussion, and likely will be more, about the future of the East Side branch. At a board meeting Tuesday, the Kumbaya was strong: liberals and conservatives, teachers and nurses, grizzled men in flannel and professional women in heels, all begging the board, sometimes tearfully, to do something, anything, to keep the branch open.

But it seems that there is a certain something that could be done.

A certain very obvious something.

It would take about $150,000 to keep the branch open another year. There’s more than $200,000 budgeted for pay raises for library staff that have yet to be finalized. More than $123,000 of that is for non-union workers; in other words, those raises would be at the discretion of the Library Board.

I dislike arguing, yet again, against a pocketbook issue for city employees, and I understand that it’s complicated, involving union negotiations and the board wanting to treat non-unionized workers fairly. But if we hand out raises while closing this branch, everyone involved ought to be ashamed.

Somehow, this has not been the focus of the debate. Rather, the question seems to be whether the Indian Trail branch, in a relatively affluent neighborhood, ought to be closed instead.

Library officials identified East Side for possible closure because it has the lowest usage of any branch, slightly below Indian Trail, and because a new computer center is going to open in the community center there, replacing some services the library now provides.

But Villella and others argue that the board needs to consider the socioeconomic picture. According to 2000 census data, a fifth of East Central families lived in poverty, about twice the city’s average. In the census tract surrounding the branch, at 524 S. Stone St., that figure was even higher – 27.5 percent.

“The poor get poorer and the rich get richer,” Villella said. “There’s something wrong with that – just intrinsically wrong.”

This is a historic recession. The actual unemployment rate is probably approaching 20 percent. Almost a third of all the workers in the country suffered some sort of giveback last year, whether it was unpaid furloughs or pay cuts or outright layoffs. Layoffs are bearing down on agencies across the state like a train on the tracks.

Keeping your job at the current level of pay is a win.

Library director Pat Partovi said a 5 percent increase is in the budget as a “space holder” to cover any increases coming from union negotiations. She notes that library workers have forgone a raise for six months this year. The non-union management and professional workers for the system are one of the only such groups in the city, and treating them fairly is important, she said.

Partovi said the Library Board would have to wrestle with these issues when it finalizes its budget in the coming weeks. Board president Jack Fallis said there remains a lot of uncertainty.

“It’s a horrible decision to have to make,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking to be in this situation.”

But what’s on paper right now is a proposal and a rationale for closing that branch. And what Fallis told the crowd at Tuesday’s meeting was that the “metrics” pointed toward the need to shut down a branch.

“To achieve the cost savings we need to balance the budget, we have to close a facility,” he said.

I’m no math genius, but when I look at the budget figures, I keep seeing this other way.

The libraries have been buffeted by cuts and uncertainty. Most notably, 2005 was a bloodbath, when library hours were cut almost in half and staffers laid off. Partovi argues persuasively that we need a better way to fund libraries, such as the creation of a municipal library district tied to property taxes.

Councilman Richard Rush painted with a broad brush when he addressed the crowd at Tuesday’s board meeting – scolding a few conservatives in the audience for daring to support a service, while giving a speech about the state’s regressive tax system. And yet he said he was unaware of the budgeted raises, and how conveniently similar they are to the shortfall.

It’s true that a sustainable way to fund libraries would be nice. And it’s true that we could have a fairer tax system. And it’s true that it would be super-cool and amazing if money just rained from the sky into our laps.

But what’s also true, as well as relevant right now, is that there’s one very apparent way to keep the East Side branch open for at least another year.

Even Sug Villella’s toddlers could see what it is.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


There are 30 comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email