Several times a week Lewis and Clark High School freshman Janelle McNeal heads to the East Side Library to finish homework, connect with friends online and read books.
But that option may soon disappear.
Faced with an approximately half-million-dollar hole in next year’s budget, the Spokane Library Board of Trustees is considering a plan to close the East Side Library.
“We’d have to go a long distance to get to another library,” said McNeal, who lives a couple blocks away and often goes to the library with her cousin, Jaquan Kinard, a sixth-grader at Grant Elementary. “Most people live in the area and probably can’t get to another one.”
The Spokane Library Board of Trustees will meet at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the East Central Community Center, 500 S. Stone St., to take public testimony about the proposed shuttering of the library, which is next door.
The possible closure comes just as the city completes paying for the library building. The East Side Library was one of six libraries built under a voter-approved property tax in 1990. Spokane Budget Director Tim Dunivant said the city will pay about $2.5 million in 2010 toward the bond that financed construction. Payments will end this year.
Library Director Pat Partovi said closing a branch is the preferred option because the system already has trimmed branch hours substantially.
“I wish we had a better answer,” Partovi said. “We end up giving bad service everywhere rather than good service in fewer locations.”
Partovi said cuts would include losing about 5 workers, the equivalent of 2 1/2 full-time employees.
When Spokane Mayor Mary Verner released a preliminary budget in May, she proposed cutting $500,000 from the amount it would take to sustain the current level of library services. The percentage cut was higher than in most departments. But as the expected deficit worsened, she’s held her proposed library cut steady while recommending greater reductions in other services.
Her current library proposal would cut 6 percent below the cost needed to sustain service levels. Most other departments will be slashed by 9 percent – unless employee unions agree with her request to pay more for health insurance and to forgo 2011 pay raises.
In 2004, during another budget crisis, a branch closure also was proposed. But after considerable outcry from neighborhood leaders, the library board opted to cut hours at all branches instead.
Some hours have been restored since then (the downtown branch reopened on Mondays this year), but Spokane’s library hours remain significantly less than other major library systems in the state. The city’s three smallest branches – East Side, Indian Trail and Hillyard – are only open 4 1/2 hours a day, five days a week.
Paul Burney, a retired Spokane resident, said he uses the East Side branch almost every day.
“This is a neighborhood where people don’t have computers and don’t have Internet access,” he said at East Side, while using a library computer. “Where does that leave all these kids?”
The amount of the city budget devoted to libraries is set by the City Council and mayor, but the Library Board of Trustees controls how that money is spent.
Partovi said the library is working with the East Central Community Center to determine if some of the library’s Internet access and other services could be transferred there. The library and community center share a parking lot.
Officials say East Side is in greatest danger of closing based largely on statistics. It has the fewest users and checkouts of any of the system’s branches. It ranks fifth in free Internet use, though that usage is significantly higher than the Internet use at the Indian Trail branch.
Since the hours at the three smaller branches were cut significantly, overall library use has shifted to the larger locations, Partovi said.
Another factor is its location. “East Side is the only branch within three miles of downtown,” she said.
It’s unclear what would happen to the library building if it closes.
“We don’t have any indication that our funding is going to increase to the level where we would be able to open it again as long as we remain part of the city’s general fund,” Partovi said.
The city has often examined the possibility of joining Spokane County’s library system. State law was recently changed to allow such a merger, but Partovi said the county system couldn’t afford to bring the city’s libraries up to the county’s service level even if it could generate taxes within city limits.
Closure of the East Side branch could be just the beginning. Shutting the branch’s doors saves only $150,000. Most of the remaining deficit will be covered from savings left in this year’s budget. That means more service cuts are likely in 2012 unless the budget picture changes.
“With the situation on hand, it may not be the last time that libraries have to face some really tough choices,” said library Trustee Janice Marich.