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Originally published December 12, 2011 at 7:34 PM | Page modified December 13, 2011 at 7:04 PM

Library levy may be on August primary ballot

Seattle voters in August might be asked to approve a tax hike to support the city's libraries, which have seen their hours and staff reduced and their acquisition of new materials limited by city budget cuts over the past three years.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Community meetings

The Seattle Public Library will hold a series of meetings to discuss the library's current budget and the possibility of a levy to restore and potentially expand funding for staffing, collections, technology and facilities maintenance.

Central Library: 10 a.m. Sat., Jan 7

Beacon Hill Library: 12 p.m. Sat., Jan 14

Ballard Library: 6 p.m. Wed., Jan 18

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Seattle voters in August might be asked to approve a tax hike to support the city's libraries, which have seen their hours and staff reduced and their acquisition of new materials limited by city budget cuts over the past three years.

No dollar amount for a levy has been determined, but Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin suggested it would be a "relatively modest" tax measure to raise between $10 million and $20 million.

Seattle voters soundly rejected a $60 car tab fee on the November ballot but approved a much larger $232 million Families and Education levy.

"Our testing of the water shows that libraries are a priority. The people of Seattle care about their libraries," Conlin said.

Since 2009, libraries have scaled back hours with 15 of the system's 26 branches now closed Friday and Sunday and the entire system shut down for a week at the end of each summer. Library staff takes unpaid furlough during that time. And the city's E-books and electronic resources comprise just 5 percent of the collection, although that's the fastest growing demand among patrons, say library officials.

A 1998 bond measure, Libraries for All, paid for four new libraries and made improvements to all of the branches, but because daily operations are paid for through the city's general fund, officials say they aren't able to keep up with the buildings' routine maintenance and repairs.

At the same time, notes the city's new head librarian, Marcellus Turner, the recession is placing a greater demand on the library's free facilities and resources.

"When the economy is bad, people use the libraries more. They forgo Internet access, magazine subscriptions, Netflix and new books. They look to us to buy those materials," Turner said.

Currently about 63 percent of Seattle residents hold Seattle Public Library cards, well above the national average of 56 percent for libraries in comparably sized cities, according to library officials. Library use peaked in 2009 at 7.3 million visits, but it's fallen 4 percent since then, a direct result, officials say, of the reduced number of hours.

The city plans to hold three public meetings in January to get feedback on a potential library levy, including what services are most important to the community and what level of services people are willing to support.

The City Council must approve a library-levy package by April 23 to place the measure on the Aug. 7 primary ballot.

At a minimum, library officials say, they'd like to fully fund core services including staffing, books, computers and ongoing maintenance.

Seattle property owners are currently paying for the Families and Education Levy, a fire-facilities levy, a Bridging the Gap transportation levy, a Pike Place Market Levy, a parks levy and a housing levy. The fire and Pike Place Market levies are set to expire in 2012 and 2014 respectively, but the others likely will be renewed.

The city also is considering a 2013 levy or bond measure to fund replacement of the waterfront sea wall.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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