Spokane voters in February may get a chance to save the city’s small library branches and substantially increase branch hours.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart is proposing that voters be asked for a property tax boost for libraries on the Feb. 12 ballot.
The city’s library budget for 2013 maintains its current services, but library officials warn that they likely will face branch closure in 2014.
The last time the Spokane Public Library Board of Trustees seriously considered closing one of the city’s six branches was in 2010, when they proposed shuttering the East Side branch. The plan sparked outrage among conservatives and liberals alike and a rally outside a City Council meeting.
In the end, the city’s main library union agreed to less-than-expected compensation and the branch stayed open. Trustees warned of branch closure after that, but a hiring freeze and other savings have kept all the branches open.
But Library Director Pat Partovi warns that there are only so many cuts the system can take until branch closure is unavoidable, and City Council members have been impressed with the management of the libraries.
“Libraries have been a very solid steward of their dollars,” said Councilman Mike Allen, who supports putting the tax on the ballot.
The proposal would raise taxes by 10 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value. The owner of a $100,000 property would pay $10 more a year. All the money would have to go for library spending. The tax would raise more than the $1.3 million needed to preserve the branches and increase hours to 1999 levels.
Currently the downtown, Shadle and South Hill branches are open 52 hours a week, and the East Side, Hillyard and Indian Trail branches are open 22 1/2 hours a week. If the tax were approved, Partovi said, Hillyard would be added to the branches open 52 hours a week, and the East Side and Indian Trail branches would increase hours to 48.
Partovi said more materials would be purchased and the equivalent of about nine employees would be hired, mostly to handle the extra hours. Branches would remain closed on Sundays.
City leaders for years have suggested separating the libraries from city government, perhaps by combining with county libraries or creating a separate district. But state law has made those solutions difficult. The tax, Stuckart said, would sustain library services long enough for the city to work with the Legislature to help find a long-term solution.
In Spokane, the City Council and mayor control how much money libraries are allocated. Library trustees decide how that money is spent and also control all library policy. The council has the power to put a library tax on the ballot.
“I’m fine with taking it to a vote of the people,” said City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin, adding: “I would strongly consider voting for it.”
While taking the tax to voters appears to have support on the City Council, Mayor David Condon opposes the effort, said city spokeswoman Marlene Feist.
He argues that the library system needs to be more innovative.
“When we decide to go out for additional money, we want to make sure we ask for investments that support innovative system changes rather than just continue our current ways of doing business,” Feist said.
But library officials say the system has worked hard to find savings and to be innovative.
Partovi said that besides holding down compensation of employees and relying on more part-time workers, the library has introduced more self-service and online programs.
“We have made many changes over many years,” Partovi said. “We are not the same library that we used to be 15 years ago.”
In 2011, then-Councilman Richard Rush also proposed a library tax, but he was successfully fought by then-Mayor Mary Verner, who argued that if more taxes were needed, public safety should take priority. Ultimately, no new taxes went to the voters, though the council did approve a license tab tax for street improvements.
Library supporters say they are locked in a nearly unwinnable battle for a share of the city’s budget against police and fire departments, which are almost always labeled the highest priority by elected leaders and have stronger employee unions that usually get higher raises.
In recent years, the portion of the city budget going to libraries has fallen below 5 percent. And unlike the parks department, which the City Charter protects from budget raids for other city services, the library system is not guaranteed a share of the city budget.
Councilman Jon Snyder said he would have preferred the administration to have presented a plan for public safety to take to the voters before dealing with libraries. City voters in 2009 narrowly rejected a tax for fire equipment, and in recent budget discussions with the council, Fire Chief Bobby Williams said many of the department’s vehicles are in great need of replacement.
Snyder said that with no plan in sight for dealing with capital needs for public safety, he’s supportive of dealing with the library shortfalls on the February ballot.
Library trustees unanimously support Stuckart’s proposal.
“I’m hoping that we get a chance to make our case to the voters, because ultimately I think we have a great case,” said library trustee Anne Walter, who is a school counselor at Franklin Elementary School.