The Seattle City Council is proposing a $123 million, seven-year property-tax levy for the August primary ballot that would end the weeklong system shutdown each summer, open all 26 branches on Sundays, add 47 staff members, rebuild and add to the library's collection of books and other materials and modernize computers and online services.

Share story

Four years of budget cuts have forced most Seattle branch libraries to close on Fridays and Sundays and have shut down the entire system for a week in late summer, when employees take an unpaid furlough.

The Seattle City Council next year expects to shave an additional $5 million off the struggling system’s $49 million current budget, so it’s asking voters for help.

The council is proposing a $123 million, seven-year property-tax levy for the August primary ballot. It would add about $17 million a year to the library’s funding and would cost the owner of a median-priced $361,000 home $52 a year.

“The libraries are still open, they’re still serving the public, but we’re shrinking a great system,” said Councilmember Nick Licata.

The council is scheduled to vote April 9 on whether to submit the measure to voters.

If the levy does make the ballot, it will be one of many that may be put before voters in the next few years.

For the city, the most urgent is the downtown waterfront sea wall, which is badly decayed and must be replaced. City leaders hope to send that measure to voters in the November general election or early next year, in order to coordinate the work with the reconstruction of Alaskan Way and the removal of the Highway 99 viaduct.

The sea-wall project is estimated to cost between $310 million and $360 million, with some money potentially coming from other government sources.

King County also is proposing a $200 million levy to rebuild the Youth Services Center for the August ballot.

Seattle Public Schools is planning to put two levies on the February 2013 ballot — a three-year operations levy to help fund regular district operations and a six-year capital levy to fund major construction and renovation. While district officials have not yet decided how much money to request, the two levies combined are almost certain to top $1 billion over their lifetimes.

Is there a limit to what Seattle voters will fund? Paul Guppy, of the conservative Washington Policy Center, said he thinks the city’s elected officials take advantage of voters by funding lower-priority measures through the general fund and asking voters to pay extra for essentials such as libraries and parks.

“The reason our city leaders keep putting measures on the ballot is because they keep getting approved,” Guppy said. “It takes advantage of voters’ generosity and civic concern.”

Even some library backers are wary of adding to the tax burden.

“I am conflicted about this levy,” said Martha Tofferi, a retired Magnolia resident and regular library user. “Levies of this type tend to become perpetual. I want all library costs to go back to the general fund as soon as is practical.”

Still, polling by library leaders has shown strong support for a levy, even in the face of other potential tax measures. A telephone survey of 400 adults in September found that 86 percent agreed that libraries provide an essential public service and continue to play an important role in encouraging citizenship and providing a community meeting place.

Reopening branch libraries on Sunday was the highest priority listed by respondents to the survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points..

“Without a levy, a fifth year of budget cuts could mean shuttering five of the branch libraries,” said Marcellus Turner, city librarian. He noted that the 1998 Libraries For All bond measure built five new libraries, including the landmark Central Library in downtown Seattle, and renovated all the other branch libraries.

That measure was approved by more than 70 percent of voters.

Library leaders say the levy funding would allow them to end the weeklong system shutdown each summer, open all 26 branches on Sundays, add 47 staff members, rebuild and add to the library’s collection of books and other materials and modernize computers and online services.

The levy also would restore the capital budget that pays for major maintenance at all 27 buildings. That budget, which is largely funded through real-estate excise taxes, has been cut over the past four years by more than half, to $820,000 this year, as the local housing market has struggled.

Library Board President Marie McCaffrey said the levy proposal “restores valued services that have been lost, allows us to sustain existing services that are in jeopardy, and enables us to adapt to meet changing needs.”

City Councilmember Richard Conlin said the city would have three options for keeping the funding level after the seven-year levy expires: renewing the levy, establishing a library district with a dedicated source of voter-approved funding or, if economic recovery is strong, restoring that money via the general fund.

Times education reporter Brian Rosenthal contributed to this report.

Lynn Thompson: 206-909-7580 or On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

Potential future ballot measures
The city of Seattle, King County and Seattle Public Schools all have additional property-tax measures that could be sent to the voters over the next five years.
Year Jurisdiction Measure
2012 City Library levy $123 million
City Sea-wall waterfront, $250 million (estimate)
City Fire facilities (expires)
County Juvenile Justice Center $200 million
County Automated Fingerprint Information Systems (renewal)
2013 County Medic 1 emergency medical services (renewal)
County Parks open space (renewal)
School District operations, capital levies, up to est. $1.3 billion
2014 City Parks open space (renewal)
City Pike Place Market (expires)
2015 City Bridging the Gap transportation levy (renewal)
2016 City Low-income housing (renewal)
School District operations
Source: Seattle City Council staff