Spokane County Library District leaders are asking voters for a $2 million property tax increase to avoid laying off staff and closing libraries, but they fear that backlash from the city of Spokane library system’s Drag Queen Story Hour could turn off voters.
Jane Baker, Spokane County libraries spokeswoman, said the district has received about 100 calls about the city’s Drag Queen Story Hour since the event drew a considerable public presence both on the South Hill and downtown in June. Many of the callers said they wouldn’t vote for the levy because they were against the story hour, or wanted to know if Spokane County libraries were planning to host its own.
“We’ve responded to each and every call, and the majority of them said they didn’t realize that program was at another library system,” Baker said.
Baker said the library district tries to offer programs that Spokane County residents say they want, but no one has asked for a Drag Queen Story Hour. She said their current story hour is designed to help young children prepare for school and is led by trained library staff.
The city’s two controversial story hours drew hundreds of protesters for and against the program, and a pastor was arrested for repeatedly trying to go to a nondesignated protesting area. City libraries also have had issues with drug use in public bathrooms and mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward has suggested finding a way to keep the homeless out of the downtown library.
Spokane County Library District Director Patrick Roewe said everyone was welcome to use library services, but the county library district will not be hosting a drag queen story hour. He also said some of the money from the levy would be used to add security cameras and make entrances to libraries safer, but that the county libraries don’t face the same security issues as the downtown library.
The city’s library system has six branches and operations are funded through a portion of property taxes within city limits. The Spokane County Library District is funded through a taxing district and has 11 locations around the county. Baker said the libraries have a sharing agreement for materials, but they are governed and funded separately.
The Spokane County Library District is asking voters for a 7-cent increase to restore their property tax level to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The county libraries are 93% funded through property taxes and grants. Library fees make up part of the remaining budget.
Roewe said the district has tried to live within its means, but costs have risen faster than tax revenue and the district needs to go to voters to avoid serious cuts in the next two years.
“Reductions in staff, materials, programs, hours and, worse-case scenario, closing libraries themselves, would all be on the table,” he said.
Roewe said the district has tried to inform voters that the city and county libraries are different entities by writing a guest column published in The Spokesman-Review earlier this month, but voters have still contacted the district with concerns. One person testifying during the libraries board meeting earlier this week asked the board of trustees if they ever planned to host a Drag Queen Story Hour. When library leaders said no, the person said the library had their vote.
Board of trustees Chair John Craig said Spokane County voters have been supportive of their library district and have kept it funded, but the confusion over which library district hosted the story hour could affect the outcome.
“It is a reasonably serious concern because often in elections, a small difference can affect what happens,” Craig said. “I believe our users understand the difference, but clearly, there is confusion and that may be a factor.”
If the bond passes, Roewe said the library would be able to replace aging heating and air conditioning systems and continue offering the same services. The district’s budget is about $11 million and the system has nearly 112,600 cardholders. About 3,700 people visit county libraries every day and visitors checked out 2.6 million digital and physical items last year.
County library branches are in Airway Heights, Argonne, Cheney, Deer Park, Fairfield, Medical Lake, Moran Prairie, north Spokane, Otis Orchards and Spokane Valley, as well as a small one in the Spokane Valley Mall. The Liberty Lake Library and the city’s system are separate entities.
The county library system currently has a mobile van that visits people who can’t visit library branches. If voters approve the levy, the program would expand to include more rural parts of the county, more vehicles and possibly a technology van. Library staff who read at day care centers also may not have to use their own vehicles.
The district would also have funding to increase digital offerings. Requests for those materials, which are far more expensive than physical books, have gone up by 2,700% over the last decade.
“We want to make sure the library is less brick-and-mortar bound and these resources can reach people wherever they’re at,” Roewe said.