Hoping to head off a new round of library closure talks or further cuts to branch hours, the Spokane Public Library is asking city leaders to sponsor a property tax boost on the April 26 ballot.
The Spokane City Council will decide Feb. 14 if it will ask voters for an extra 15 cents for each $1,000 of taxable property value. If successful, the tax would generate an extra $2.3 million a year.
Besides allowing the system to keep all its locations open, the tax would allow all six of the city’s branches to resume full-time hours for the first time in more than a decade. Three branches currently are open only 22 ½ hours a week.
Under the proposal, the owner of a $100,000 property would pay an additional $15 a year.
“It gives us an opportunity to once again provide a level of service that we’d like to provide and that citizens want us to provide,” said library Director Pat Partovi.
Last year, library administrators proposed closing the East Side Library – probably the most controversial suggestion that emerged as the city struggled to balance its budget. Library trustees later approved a budget that kept the branch open after library workers accepted a less-than-expected 1 percent pay raise. Even so, library trustees warned that they were balancing the 2011 budget with reserves that will be depleted by the end of the year – creating even greater likelihood of branch closure talks later this year.
The tax proposal appears to have an uphill climb. Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has not backed the effort.
“I definitely recognize the need in libraries. I’m just struggling to prioritize expanding library services at a time when we are cutting back in public safety,” Verner said.
City Council President Joe Shogan said the proposal could stop the city from considering broader tax boosts that could also benefit police, fire and other city departments.
“The council has got to look at the overall financial health of the city,” Shogan said.
But City Councilman Richard Rush said the electorate doesn’t appear to be in the mood for tax increases for a wide array of services. With the outcry the City Council heard last year about the possible closure of the branch, voters should decide if they want libraries funded to a level of full service.
“My sense is the voters are willing to give additional tax money to the city for very focused, limited purposes,” said Rush, who is sponsoring the proposal to place the tax on the ballot. “I’m just responding to the community who said that they wanted the system preserved and accessible.”
Rush is the City Council liaison to the Spokane Library Board of Trustees, which voted unanimously last month to recommend the tax boost – called a levy lid lift – to the City Council.
“People say they care, and if they care, they need to make sure the money is there,” said Library Trustee Janice Marich.
Library supporters have long argued that the city library system is an afterthought of city government – often losing out to arguments from elected leaders that “public safety” is far-and-away the top funding priority.
The Spokane Public Library’s budget is about $8.5 million. If a property tax increase is approved, officials say the intent would be for the City Council to continue providing about the same amount plus the new tax.
City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she’s sympathetic to the call for a library tax boost but worries that if voters approved the tax the council would feel obligated not to cut libraries as the city braces for another budget shortfall in 2012. That would mean deeper cuts in the rest of city government, she said.
She said depending how the budget shakes out, she would be more open to a property tax that considers the entire budget.
“I want to make sure that we’re really honest with what we try to sell the citizens. We have to take a more holistic look at what is going on in the Spokane city budget.”
But Louise Chadez, who helped rally support last year to keep the East Side branch open, said that given the current anti-tax mood, adding more items to the tax could endanger its passage.
“I would hope that people would find that this isn’t very much and it would go a long way to preserving our libraries,” Chadez said.
Ballots for the April 26 election will be mailed on April 8.