The Seattle Public Library began gauging the public's priorities for libraries Saturday as officials ponder a possible property-tax levy that would help restore services and stave off further budget cuts.

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The Seattle Public Library began gauging the public’s priorities for libraries Saturday as officials ponder a possible property-tax levy that would help restore services and stave off further budget cuts.

An August vote on a levy may be the next step for the city’s popular library system, which has been on a funding roller coaster for years. City leaders have said they would likely ask for between $10 million and $20 million.

In a 1998 outpouring of love and money, city voters approved the largest library bond proposition in American history, a $196.4 million tax measure called Libraries for All that built a new central library downtown and built or renovated 26 neighborhood branches.

But five rounds of city budget cuts since 2009 have chipped away at library hours, materials and staffing. The city has lopped off 9 percent of the library’s budget, forcing the system to close for a week each summer and to shutter more than half of the city’s libraries two days a week.

With even deeper cuts anticipated in 2013, the Seattle City Council appears headed for an operating levy that would supplement city funding.

The library system’s 2012 operating budget totals $51.8 million.

About 200 people showed up Saturday at the main library downtown to weigh in on library services.

They told City Librarian Marcellus Turner that they love the library’s system for reserving materials, they don’t want books to take hit as the library invests in e-books, and they want more hours at their neighborhood branches. Having other branches open nearby doesn’t make up for less service at their branches, they said.

After years of increased library use because of new buildings and the recession, this year the branches with fewer hours have seen a big drop-off.

At the Columbia branch, where hours were cut to just 35 a week, patron visits have dropped by 32 percent and kids receiving homework help went down 46 percent, library officials said.

Meanwhile, the buildings need maintenance and computers need to be replaced, said Turner. There’s a sense that something has to give.

“We’re proud of the Libraries for All program, but the buildings do need attention,” he said.

The meeting was the first of three this month seeking feedback about what the public wants in libraries. Library officials didn’t specifically ask whether taxpayers would be willing to pay more to support the system, but the need for funding was clearly the meeting’s backdrop.

“I wish that we didn’t have to turn to additional taxes to fund what I consider to be a basic service,” said Shireen Deboo, who attended Saturday’s meeting. She usually uses the Capitol Hill branch library and sees a levy as better than nothing. She called it a “band-aid solution” that underscores a need for statewide tax reform.

No one at the meeting wanted less from the library. Everyone who spoke was looking for more hours, more new materials, better building maintenance and more library programming.

“We are just listening,” said Turner. “Even if we are not successful … we at least know what the public truly wants.”

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.