By Rod Lotter
– The Capitol Hill Times -
A City Council proposal hopes to relieve Seattle Libraries as more budget cuts loom
Editor’s note: This is an extended version of the article that ran in the April 5 print edition of The Capitol Hill Times.
The library has always been a safe haven for people with limited resources; now the library system has found itself in the same boat.
Budgets for Seattle’s branch libraries have been slashed every year for the past four years. The cuts have resulted in fewer operating hours – including branch closures on Sundays and week-long Summer closures for all branches – fewer upgrades on the computers and internet, and less maintenance and upkeep.
To combat these problems and keep the libraries healthy and viable well into the future, the Seattle City Council is proposing a tax levy to help fund the library. The $123 million levy would be raised and spent over the next seven years, according to the proposal. A levy is tax proposed by the government, in which the public is asked to fund a project or proposal that the city would otherwise be unable to support.
The Council held a public hearing on the matter April 3, and will make a decision whether to propose the levy to the public six days later. If the decision is made in favor, the library levy will be on the ballot Aug. 7 and voters will decide whether they will take on the tax to help the libraries. The tax would only be imposed on property owners.
City Council President Richard Conlin said the levy is necessary to ensure that the libraries at least keep their current budget as another $5 million cut to services is scheduled next year.
“It’s very clear the people of Seattle care,” Conlin said. “Unfortunately the recession hit hard and budget cuts will likely continue for at least a couple more years even though we are in recovery.”
In today’s post-Tea Party world, the idea of more taxation seems like wishful thinking on the government’s behalf; although no one at the public hearing spoke against the proposal. In 1998, 70 percent of Seattle voters passed the Libraries For All bond, which funded libraries with $196 million, one of the largest library bonds of its kind passed in the United States.
City Council member Tim Burgess left the public hearing early due to prior engagements, but said that he fully supports the levy.
“I don’t think [the Council] will have any difficulty with our decision,” Burgess said, referring to the decision to bring the levy onto the ballot. “But, you need to talk to your neighbors.”
If the library levy does make it onto the ballot, which seems likely, it will be joined by six other levy proposals that total more than $1 billion. While it seems the library levy has a steep hill to climb in that context, the tax will only cost payers about $52 a year, roughly $1 a week.
Many Seattle residents, spanning ages, races, genders, sexual orientations and economic backgrounds, spoke at the meeting and expressed the role libraries played in their lives.
Dr. Gary Kunis, a local real estate developer, spoke about the importance of the libraries’ roles in helping the disadvantaged and poor find work and have Internet access they would not have otherwise.
“The library is the number one resource in Seattle that addresses the digital divide,” Dr. Kunis said. “It allows anyone to find employment, get job training and get a G.E.D. You can even get your taxes done at the library. This is one resource that [Seattle] can be proud of. I will be one of the people to pay for [the levy] and I am more than happy to do it.”
How the Capitol Hill Branch Will Be Affected
The Capitol Hill branch, located at 425 Harvard Ave. E., has been open since 2003. The building itself was built in 1945, and because of its location in Seattle’s densest neighborhood, the building needs constant repairs. The branch also needs more computers and printers to meet demand, as it only has 21 computers now.
If the levy passes, the branch will be able to maintain its current operation.
Currently, the Cap Hill branch is one of very few libraries still open every day of the week. More books would be added to the library’s collection, which would reduce wait times for popular titles. The levy would also keep the library from closing for the one-week in the Summer, expand the children’s collection, upgrade the internet and computer capacity and maintain the library’s special collection of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender book collection, which is unique to the Capitol Hill branch, according to the proposal.
In 2011 the Cap Hill branch served 292,784 patrons, checked out more than 500,000 books, cds and dvds and hosted more than 400 community meetings. The branch is only expected to see more use throughout the foreseeable future.