In our Information Age, when access to knowledge is key to a civil society, Seattle’s remarkable library system is an equalizer, sharing and dispensing knowledge and resources to all who pass through its doors, without reservation or judgment. For that, and more, Seattle voters should renew the library levy.
At $219 million, it’s almost $100 million more than the $123 million 2012 levy. Seattle voters, who will get their ballot in a couple weeks, should know two things: The library kept its promises on how it would invest money from the last levy, an achievement that bodes well for doing the same if the levy is renewed; and the levy would cost the average household roughly $7 a month, an increase of about $3 per month. For those with a calculator, it’s up to 12.2 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
The new levy would provide needed capital to a valued community resource that is transforming how it delivers services to a growing and diverse city. Last year, library users checked out almost 12 million digital and print materials, a record. In 2018, more than 17 million library visits happened in person and online.
The 2012 levy dollars — which covered about one-quarter of the library’s operation and maintenance costs — were invested in restoring thousands of hours of service cut during the Great Recession. The levy also helped grow digital and print collections, and maintain 26 heavily-used branch libraries, as well as the Central Library.
In sizing the new levy, the library board took the past levy and factored in inflation, payroll and operating costs and determined that to keep just the present level of service, it would cost $167 million above what the City Council has budgeted for libraries.
An additional $52 million is needed to pay for big-ticket items, such as critical seismic retrofits to three historic branch libraries (Columbia, Green Lake and University), and continued major maintenance on a constellation of branches. Ten thousand operating hours would be added, along with more security staff.
More than 300,000 children, teens and adults attended more than 10,000 free educational classes and activities through the library last year, including English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes, literacy programs, one-on-one business help for entrepreneurs, homework help for students, author readings, free income-tax preparation, computer literacy workshops and more.
Almost $60 million would be spent over the next seven years to maintain and expand collections, including e-books, print books and “Peak Picks” — hot new books purchased to end the long waiting lists.
An argument can be made that the council should re-prioritize spending, fully fund libraries with existing tax revenue and not further burden homeowners and renters. However, Seattle like the rest of the state, is restricted by the statewide 1% cap on property-tax increases. And it’s experiencing an unprecedented boom in population. With more people comes a growing appetite and expectation for more services.
As Library Board President Jay Reich sees it, “If you want to collect more than a 1% increase in property taxes per year, you have to vote it. And our expenses are going up faster than 1% — by a lot.”
The levy also would put Seattle on the nationwide list of libraries that have eliminated overdue fines. Consider that 19%of users — those who may need the library the most — currently are blocked from accessing it. When fines are suspended, libraries see an increase in people checking out materials.
Fines may seem insignificant to some, but for those on a limited or fixed income, who might lose a book or forget to return it on time, “you’re not going to choose paying fines over eating,” says Lupine Miller, supervising librarian at the South Park branch. “Fines don’t encourage patrons to bring back materials and pay them off, and if you can’t, you can’t.”
The South Park branch was remodeled this spring and is a jewel in a neighborhood that otherwise lacks adequate meeting space and often is overlooked. During its eight-week closure for new paint, carpeting, furniture, shelving, desks, outlets and more, Miller said, she was asked time again when it would reopen. Weekday afternoons it’s abuzz with students needing help with homework, looking to check out a laptop or get a snack.
Seattle voters are a generous lot and, while levy fatigue is very real, the city’s library system deserves community support. Vote yes for the library levy, Seattle’s Proposition 1.