February 13, 2011 in City

Verner urges council to reject library-only tax

By The Spokesman-Review
Up for consideration

The Spokane City Council will meet at 6 p.m. Monday and will consider placing a property tax to benefit libraries on the April ballot. It also will consider a $20-per-vehicle tab tax.

A proposal to ask voters for a library tax appears unlikely to make the ballot after Mayor Mary Verner and her staff urged council members last week to consider a broader property tax that could also boost the police and fire budgets.

“We don’t want to be faced with potential closures of branches again next year,” Verner told the City Council. “But we also don’t want to be faced with additional layoffs.”

Verner and other administrators said they were crafting budget details that would be presented to the council in April – in time for the council to consider asking voters for a property tax increase (called a levy lid lift) on the August ballot. They said they also were working with a citizens committee that will examine tax increase ideas.

The position signals a shift for Verner, who has relied on budget cuts, employee concessions, a utility tax boost, layoffs and business license fee increases to balance the last three budgets.

Administration officials have been hesitant to estimate the budget shortfall in 2012 but say it once again will be in the millions of dollars. The budget could be particularly tough because the city has nearly emptied its rainy-day fund.

“We’ve cut every one of those priorities down to the point that I think it would be irresponsible of us not to say to our citizens, ‘It’s up to you, voters. We’re going to maintain at least this reduced service level or not and if you don’t want to give us any more revenue then we’ll be prepared to cut the services even more drastically than we have,’ ” Verner said.

On Monday, the City Council will decide if it will place a library property tax on the April ballot that would raise about $2.3 million and cost the owner of a $100,000 property $15 a year. Money raised would allow all six branches to be open full-time hours for the first time in more than a decade.

Councilman Richard Rush argues that voters don’t appear to be in the mood for a broad-based tax, but that given outcry last year about possible branch closure, library services appear popular and specific enough to gain public support. Rush said a levy lid lift specifically for libraries is the same strategy used by many library districts across the state, including Spokane County’s.

“I’m struggling to see how we’re ever going to get a general levy lid lift passed,” Rush said. “It seems like a counterproposal would be to take things one at a time.”

But Councilman Steve Corker said that since the city’s No. 1 priority is public safety, it doesn’t make sense to ask only for a tax for libraries. 

“We’re talking about adding a bedroom or fixing the swimming pool or putting a roof on the garage, and the roof on our house is falling apart, the heating system has gone out and we can’t even guarantee that we’re going to have water coming into the house,” Corker said. “And I’m sitting there saying, ‘I’m going to get a subscription to a book club when I can’t even feed my family?’ ”

Councilman Jon Snyder noted that within the past two years the city has asked voters for three public safety taxes, and voters rejected two of them. It’s been about two decades since the council has asked voters for a library tax.

“Just because we look at a library vote doesn’t mean that all of a sudden we’ve flipped the priorities of government on its head,” Snyder said.

Administrators worry that public safety unions, which were the only of the city’s large bargaining groups that accepted concessions for the 2011 budget, would be angered by a library-only vote.

“Their response is going to be that ‘We’ve given for two years and you’ve told us that we’re the No. 1 priority and now you’re adding revenue for one area, so don’t ask us to take a small contract or do concessions for the rest of it. That’s your problem,’ ” City Budget Director Tim Dunivant predicted. “Those may not be their exact words, but that’s going to be the gist of it.”

Officials also say that without the ability to offer raises it is difficult to win non-monetary concessions from unions – like stronger police oversight.

Council members debated whether a broad-based tax should pay simply to maintain current service or should include improvements, such as the restoration of six-day-a-week, full-time library service at all branches.

Spokane voters last approved a levy lid lift under Mayor Jim West. The tax was sold as temporary, and Mayor Dennis Hession decided not to push for a new vote once it expired.

Verner said that if a library vote is successful, it would be difficult for the council to trim funding for libraries if budget cuts are necessary. That would mean deeper cuts to police and fire, she said. Rush responded that it’s counterintuitive that solving the library’s financial gap necessarily makes the police and fire budgets more challenging than they otherwise would be.

City Council President Joe Shogan said that if the council later decides more taxes are needed to prevent police and fire cuts, the chances of a public safety tax on a ballot later this year would be hurt by a library-only vote in April.

“That kind of poisons any other thing except maybe canonization of Mother Teresa on the ballot, and I’m not sure even that would get passed,” Shogan said.

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