Seven people stood outside the Hillyard Library as they waited for its doors to open at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Several more were waiting in their cars.
The wait to get into the Hillyard Library and Spokane’s two other neighborhood branches could be much shorter under a proposed tax voters will consider on the Feb. 12 ballot.
The tax would increase hours at the city’s three smallest branches from 22 1/2 to 40 hours a week. More importantly, it would prevent branch closure.
The four-year tax would increase taxes by $7 a year on a piece of property assessed at $100,000. Ballots will be mailed this week.
For nearly a decade, the Hillyard, East Side and Indian Trail branches have only been open about half as much as the main branches, downtown, Shadle and South Hill. The three smaller branches also have been threatened with having to close entirely. In 2010, the city’s library trustees suggested closing the East Side branch, a proposal that was abandoned after protests and after a library union agreed to smaller-than-expected raises.
Library officials avoided proposing branch closure since, they say, by making other cuts and dipping into reserves. They forecast that reserves will be gone by the end of this year.
Multiple branch closures would be unavoidable without voter approval of the tax increase, officials say.
“I don’t know what other options we’re going to have short of cutting police officers or firefighters,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart, the City Council’s liaison to the library board.
Of the library systems serving the 10 largest cities in Washington, only Yakima’s is funded at a lower level per capita. Of the main branch libraries serving the 20 largest cities, only one is open fewer hours, though another is open the same amount. Spokane is among the three of the largest 20 cities that offer no Sunday hours.
“The level of service that we have now is frankly not very good at all,” Library Board President Jack Fallis said. “Our funding level has remained level and will continue to remain level while our costs are going up.”
Library supporters say Spokane’s system often is overlooked in a budget that also must consider police, fire, park and other services. The levy is supported by Republican- and Democratic-leaning Spokane City Council members, who have generally praised the library for frugal budgeting.
The exception is Councilman Mike Fagan, who has criticized the library for providing programs beyond “core services,” including story times for children, genealogy programs and helping kids with homework.
Mayor David Condon opposed the original plan to put the tax on the ballot. But he said he supports the proposal that was approved by the City Council – 7 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value with a four-year expiration date. The original plan didn’t sunset and was 10 cents per $1,000.
He said the proposal will help maintain and improve services for four years, enough time to consider ways to make the system more innovative and find a long-term funding solution.
Larry Alexander, a Spokane resident and college student, said providing access to knowledge through libraries is worth a bit more in taxes. He tried to use the Hillyard branch Tuesday morning only to find it closed. He came back soon after it opened.
“It’s so hard to get in here,” he said.