Seattle voters will decide in August whether to approve a seven-year, $219 million library levy.
The new levy would replace Seattle’s existing library levy. That seven-year, $123 million measure will expire at the end of this year.
Councilmember Debora Juarez, who shepherded the new measure through the council, said the money will be needed to support “one of the city’s most valuable institutions and assets” as Seattle continues to grow.
Patrons use Seattle’s library branches to read, learn, meet and listen to lectures, Juarez noted.
“Libraries are the people’s university. They’re the most public of institutions,” she said.
Durkan proposed that $167 million from the new levy be used to retain services funded by the expiring levy, adjusting for inflation. She proposed that $46 million be used to do more.
For example, the new levy would expand hours at seven Seattle Public Library branches, pay for seismic renovations at three branches and allow the library system to eliminate fines for overdue books, partly because such fines can lead to accounts being blocked and disproportionately affect people with less money.
Councilmember M. Lorena González sponsored an amendment to add $2.1 million over the life of the levy to pay for more “play and learn” programs at library branches. The programs help children under 5 begin to learn literacy in multiple languages.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien sponsored a $2.5 million addition to keep all 26 branches open for another hour each evening, Monday through Thursday.
And Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda sponsored a $1.1 million amendment to supply an additional youth-services social worker and case worker, who would work primarily with homeless patrons.
The mayor’s plan called for the new levy to collect just under 12 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in 2020, which would cost the owner of a home of median assessed value an estimated $7 per month, or about $1.58 per month more than the existing levy. With the council’s changes, the new levy would collect just over 12 cents per $1,000.
The new levy, like the existing levy, would supplement the library system’s regular budget. The operating budget this year is $80.9 million, including $17.6 million in levy funds.
The proposal to eliminate overdue fines, with an estimated cost of $8 million over the life of the new levy, has provoked conversation. Fines traditionally have been meant to motivate timely returns, and some voters have questioned the wisdom of doing away with them.
But dozens of library systems across the country, including those serving Snohomish, Island and Kitsap counties, now operate without fines. Electronic materials, which represent a growing share of items borrowed, already are fine-free in Seattle’s system.
“Libraries that have eliminated fines have found that late returns have not increased, more items are returned and perhaps most importantly, there’s a significant increase in participation,” library board president Jay Reich told the council recently.
“Even the fear of a fine is enough to keep many people from using the library. The guilt and shame people feel over library fines creates a negative association with libraries and drives them away.”
Furthermore, fines disproportionately affect people with less money, Reich noted. Patrons owe more, on average, at library branches in less-wealthy Seattle neighborhoods.
Moving ahead with the new levy, the libraries would continue to charge replacement fees for items not returned at all. Items are considered lost after 40 days, though they can still be returned after that time.