Library system asks voters for funding
January 19, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
King County Library System officials will ask voters next month to increase property taxes to maintain programs and services at the third-busiest library system in the nation.Officials trimmed $1.9 million from the system last year, cutting dollars for new books and other materials, technology upgrades and building maintenance. Proponents said additional money raised through the property tax increase is necessary to prevent further cuts. Opponents said the library system should not increase the tax burden on homeowners in a recession.
King County voters will decide the measure, Proposition 1, on the Feb. 9 ballot. Proposition 1 asks voters to restore the property tax rate to 50 cents per $1,000 in assessed value in 2011. A homeowner with a $400,000 home would pay $32 more next year if voters approved the measure. The measure would raise the rate for a year.
In 2009, the levy rate dropped to 36 cents as property valuations climbed faster than 1 percent during the past several years, library documents state.
Officials rely on property tax dollars to run the 44-library system. Proposition 1 is a levy lid lift; money raised through the measure would be used for library operations. If the measure fails, the library system faces budget cuts between 10 percent and 15 percent.
The levy lid lift differs from a capital bond measure; money raised through a bond is funneled to facilities and infrastructure.
Julie Brand, community relations and marketing manager for the library system, said the measure is crucial because usage has climbed 43 percent since 2001, as the system expanded and more patrons utilized county libraries. The recession boosted numbers further, Brand said, as residents sought free access to books, CDs, DVDs and the Web.
“In bad times, people turn to libraries,” she said.
Brand referenced the $32 property tax increase for a $400,000 home, and said, “$32 is a deal” for the services libraries provide for free.
Proposition 1 opponents, however, said the measure is ill timed amid the economic downturn.
“However, as public schools and government agencies reduce expenses during the worst recession since 1929, library management coldheartedly disregards thousands of unemployed, including families losing homes overburdened already by over-assessed property taxes,” Will Knedlik, a former state legislator, wrote in the county voters’ guide statement against the ballot measure.
Usage at the Issaquah Library climbed 59 percent from September 2008 to September 2009. Friends of the Issaquah Library President Martha Pinsky said the recession helped drive the need for library services.
“All of those things are free at the public library, and everyone’s trying to make their dollars go farther these days,” she said.
Pinsky said the friends group worked to raise awareness about the ballot item, and encourage people to support Proposition 1 in the all-mail election.
Proposition 1 supporters said voters understand the library system is a crucial community resource. Brand said library resources allowed people to update resumes, conduct job searches and apply for unemployment benefits, in addition to the usual programs and services.
“Voters in King County have always strongly supported the library system,” she said. “We provide so much to so many different people.”
A state law limits the amount library officials can raise property taxes to a 1 percent hike. Voters must approve increases greater than the 1 percent cap.
Washington voters passed Initiative 747 — a measure promoted by tax buster Tim Eyman — almost a decade ago. The measure limited annual property tax increases to 1 percent. Courts later declared the measure unconstitutional, but in 2007, state lawmakers reinstated the 1 percent cap.
Voters also approved levy lid lifts in 1977, 1980 and 2002. The most recent lift passed the year after voters approved I-747.
Voters also passed a bond measure for the system in September 2004. But the state Public Disclosure Commission chastised the library system after the election, when the commission said library system Director Bill Ptacek used library facilities to promote the ballot item. The measure passed with about 64 percent of the vote.