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Originally published July 24, 2012 at 8:21 PM | Page modified July 24, 2012 at 8:25 PM

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Views clash over approving $123M levy to protect Seattle libraries

Supporters of the Seattle library levy say that the $123 million measure will restore service hours, rebuild collections and maintain neglected buildings. Opponents say day-to-day operations of libraries are so important they should be prioritized in the budget — ahead of less important programs.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Both supporters and opponents of a Seattle library levy on the Aug. 7 primary ballot agree libraries are a treasured part of the community and deserve public support. They nurture lifelong readers and provide a crucial resource to the poor and unemployed.

So what's the disagreement?

Supporters say the $123 million, seven-year levy would restore service hours, rebuild collections and maintain buildings neglected over the past four years of city budget cuts.

Opponents say the day-to-day operations of libraries are so important that they should be prioritized in the city budget and funded ahead of less important programs.

Instead, opponents say, city leaders are calculating that voters will support a levy for libraries and thereby free up general-fund money for less-beloved programs.

"Levies should be limited to one-time funding needs or a crisis, not for daily operations," said Suzie Burke, a Fremont businesswoman and Lake Union District Council member who co-authored the statement against Seattle Proposition 1 in the Voters' Guide.

If approved, the library levy would cost the owner of a $360,000 home about $53 a year.

Since 2009, libraries have cut hours and staff, with 15 of the 26 branches now closed on Fridays and Sundays and the entire system shut down for a week each August, when staff take unpaid furlough.

The libraries' e-books make up only 5 percent of the collection, although patrons increasingly want those titles, officials say.

A 1998 bond measure, Libraries for All, built the new downtown library and four branch libraries, and made improvements to the others. But the budget for capital improvements this year is half what it was four years ago, making it difficult to maintain the heavily used buildings, said Marcellus Turner, the city's head librarian.

He agreed the library should be a priority in Seattle's general-fund budget. But, he added, "Budget cuts are being faced by cities around the country, and each has to make a decision about how to fund essential services. A levy was a way the city felt they could continue great programs and the same level of support through alternative means."

City budget staff earlier warned that a $32 million budget shortfall in 2013 could mean an additional cut of $5 million to the libraries' current $53 million funding.

But critics note that is a reduction of almost 10 percent, greater than cuts made to even larger departments in the past few years. Chris Leman, of the group Save Our Seattle Library, which opposes the levy, called the threatened cut "an attempt to spook voters into approving a property-tax increase."

Leman said the city budget is a true statement of its priorities and that the city should continue to fund libraries within its annual expenditures.

"Libraries are a core service," he said. "They're a place people go when they're trying to get a job, when they want to educate themselves about something. It's a place of civility. It's one of the most important things a city does."

Leman also is critical of what he sees as a lack of accountability in the levy. The Libraries for All measure included an independent citizens oversight committee. The current levy would rely on five appointed Seattle library trustees to make budget recommendations to the mayor and City Council.

Turner countered that trustees are authorized by state law to oversee and govern library budgets and already do so each year.

Many Seattleites, even those on tight budgets, support the levy. Robin Dearling, a Queen Anne senior, said she's become an even bigger library user and fan since retiring.

"I'm so impressed with the tremendous amount of usage our branch gets," she said. "After school, you see a blizzard of moms and kids, lying on the lawn, reading. If you get a little kid into the library, you've got a reader for life."

She said the city's general fund doesn't have the money to restore services reduced over the past few years. The levy, she said, "takes us to where we were."

Craig Seasholes, a teacher-librarian at Sanislo Elementary School in West Seattle, said public libraries provide essential services, particularly to students who may not have Internet access at home.

"The equity issues in schools are huge," he said. "You can say, 'Go to a bookstore and buy the book,' but a lot of kids can't." Having libraries open when schools are not, Seasholes said, gives students more opportunities to read, research and learn.

He agreed a special levy shouldn't be needed to fund Seattle libraries.

"Everybody wishes that were true, but it isn't," he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305

or lthompson@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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