It’s time or money to maintain Sno-Isle Libraries’ operations

  • Sat Oct 17th, 2009 1:33am
  • News

By Eric Stevick, Herald Writer

Chris Loos and Tom Balt are card- carrying members of the Sno-Isle Libraries system.

Loos, an Edmonds resident who devours mystery novels, plans to vote for a libraries property tax rate increase on the Nov. 3 ballot; Balt, a rural Snohomish resident who’s been reading the classics of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, will vote no.

They are among the half-million borrowers in the Sno-Isle Libraries system database. Sno-Isle includes 21 libraries and 491 full- and part-time workers. It has a $38 million budget, including reserves, and checked out 8.4 million items in 2008.

Sno-Isle Libraries Prop. 1 would increase the library district’s levy rate by 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. It would raise the rate for the libraries from 31 cents to 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The owner of a $300,000 home would pay an extra $27 a year under the ballot proposal, which requires a simple majority to pass.

“In the big picture, it’s such a small amount of money,” said Loos, who frequents the Edmonds library a block from her home. “People spend more money on cable and lattes. You could go without a few lattes a month.”

Balt said he believes the library system provides great service to its communities, but he can’t justify voting for a tax increase in a down economy. The 9 cents per $1,000 amounts to a 29 percent increase, which is too much in tough times, he said. “There are people losing jobs, losing homes,” he said. Government services, such as libraries, “are going to have to do with less.”

A series of public meetings and more than 1,000 Web surveys last spring convinced library leaders to trim spending by more than $1 million to reduce the amount they would ask from taxpayers. Cuts approved for 2010 include a 3 percent salary cut for the top six highest-paid Sno-Isle employees and three other senior staff members.

“We heard from people they wanted us to tighten our belts,” said Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory, the Sno-Isle director.

There also will be a salary freeze for all other employees as well as cuts in spending on materials and equipment. In addition, improvements to the libraries’ computer system have been delayed until 2011. Some vacant positions will not be filled.

If the levy fails, the library officials say they will have to reduce spending by $2.5 million in 2010, which also would mean reducing libraries’ hours and further cuts to purchases of books and materials.

The district would make reductions in hours equitable across the system, but trim hours at each site to different times based on usage patterns, officials said.

“I think it’s important when we make these really tough decisions, we consider what is happening locally,” Woolf-Ivory said.

A levy increase would allow Sno-Isle to rebuild its reserves and provide money to maintain current library services for five years, Woolf-Ivory said.

Sno-Isle Libraries passed a similar levy lid lift during a 2003 election, and set aside money in reserve funds. The 2003 ballot measure increased the levy amount from 46 cents to its maximum legal limit of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. That rate steadily dropped over the next five years to 31 cents per $1,000 this year as property values increased.

In 2008 and 2009, Sno-Isle transferred reserve funds into the operating budget, and made cuts in other areas to delay the need to seek another new levy rate increase, Woolf-Ivory said.

The library measure will appear on ballots in most Snohomish and Island county communities. Exceptions are Everett and Woodway, which are not part of the Sno-Isle system.

Langley and Stanwood contract for Sno-Isle library services but are not annexed into the system and therefore will not vote.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.