Libraries are a tremendous asset for the city of Spokane and those outside the city who use its Northwest Room and other unique resources. Circulation has climbed to more than 2 million per year since the recession hit in 2008, and daily visits have also reached record highs.
We have little doubt Spokane voters would authorize a tax increase for maintaining and expanding services and hours if the City Council decides to put one on a February ballot. Romance novelists could take a lesson from the affection residents have for their libraries.
A proposed closure of the East Side branch in 2010 had the heartening effect of uniting conservatives and liberals behind an effort to keep the doors open. With the closure of two branches a possibility in 2014 because of budget pressures, the ante will be that much higher.
A majority of council members seems likely to endorse a vote on the $1.3 million library levy increase. Approval would boost the tax on a home assessed at $100,000 by $10 per year. Try buying a book, book-on-CD or DVD for that. Or put a price on any of the library system’s other services.
This is great value for taxpayer dollars, but we withhold judgment pending the vote, if there is one. Asking voters to provide more money for libraries, desirable as that may be, does not attack the real problem.
Public safety expenditures are leaving an ever smaller portion of city funds for other purposes. Until the city gets those costs under control, other services will suffer.
The libraries have managed the record demand for services without getting more general fund money. The appropriation has remained steady at $7.9 million the last three years, during which employees have received annual pay increases of 1 percent. But the system has nearly exhausted its financial reserves and cannot go forward without additional tax support by 2014.
Other solutions are problematic, at least in the near term.
Annexation into the Spokane County Library District would be complicated. The county levy for libraries is capped at 50 cents per $1,000 assessed value. The city, with its greater variety of services, spends 58 cents. The board of the county library district would have to entertain a request for annexation that, if accepted, only city of Spokane residents could vote to approve.
And current Washington law prohibits cities from forming their own library districts, with independent taxing and administrative authority. Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, will sponsor a bill to change that. Seattle officials might be interested in supporting such legislation.
Those alternatives would take time to implement, provided either can find enough legislator and voter support. A major effort to educate residents on their options would be necessary. Libraries are worth it.
And that galvanizing of left and right behind the East Side branch in 2010? Maybe the Obama administration should propose closing the Library of Congress to see whether Democrats and Republicans can agree on anything.