Sno-Isle Libraries will have to make cuts or go to voters

The board soon will decide whether to reduce services by $2 million or go to the ballot.

MARYSVILLE — Sno-Isle Libraries is likely to ask voters next year for extra financial help.

In less than two weeks, the board of trustees is expected to decide whether to reduce the library system’s budget by $2 million in 2019 or to ask voters to consider restoring the levy rate on property taxes to 47 cents per $1,000. That would raise the rate by 9 cents per $1,000.

Before then, Sno-Isle leaders are hosting open houses in Snohomish and Island counties to explain library finances and glean suggestions. The final two sessions are 1-5 p.m. Sunday at the Snohomish Library and 6-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Mountlake Terrace Library.

At its Dec. 11 regular meeting, the Sno-Isle board is scheduled to decide whether to reduce services for 2019 or place a measure on the ballot in spring 2018 to maintain the level of library services.

Sno-Isle has come up with a menu of potential cuts within its 22-library system.

For instance, closing libraries Sundays would save an estimated $1.2 million. It has not been a popular idea based on early feedback, said Marti Anamosa, president of the Sno-Isle board.

“For people who work, Sunday is an essential opening day,” she said. Often it is a time for families to go to the library together.

Cutting library hours at least one day a week by four hours could make up $1.4 million.

Purchasing 45,000 fewer items for the library collection could save $1 million.

The dozen budget-cutting possibilities also include replacing public computers less often, no longer allowing customers to borrow materials from other library systems across the country and delaying improvements to the library online catalog.

The alternative to making cuts is asking voters to restore the levy rate. In recent years, as property values increased, levy rates dropped.

If the measure makes the ballot and passes, it would raise the tax bill for the owner of a $300,000 home by $27. The annual tab would be $141.

Seeking periodic voter approval to raise the levy rate has been part of Sno-Isle’s long-term financial plan.

The library system had a $51 million budget in 2016 and loans about 8 million items a year from a collection that includes 1.2 million books, CDs, DVDs and eBooks. The libraries served roughly 3.5 million customers in 2016, roughly 10,000 people a day. Sno-Isle doesn’t take in the cities of Everett and Woodway in Snohomish County.

The last time Sno-Isle went to voters to bump up levy rates was in 2009. That rate also increased by 9 cents per $1,000, according to Sno-Isle records. By state law, the library system can charge no more than 50 cents per $1,000.

After the most recent measure passed, Sno-Isle was able to build a reserve. By design, it is now dwindling. That is the reality for an agency that gets 98 percent of its money from property taxes. The 2009 measure followed a similar ballot issue in 2002.

Sno-Isle’s budget is built on a series of short- and long-term projections. For a few years, library leaders have been trying to determine when the need would arise to go back to voters.

“I wouldn’t say at the beginning of this year we woke up and said, ‘Oh my goodness, 2019 is going to be trouble,’ ” said Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory, Sno-Isle’s executive director.

If the library board takes the issue to the ballot, the measure would be decided in an April vote.

The reliance on property taxes requires the district to go back to voters on a fairly regular basis, Woolf-Ivory said.

“I don’t think that is a bad thing,” she said. “I think it really is our communities that support our libraries. They are the ultimate judge of the value of our service. I think we owe it to our community for the community to make a local decision on their public library.”

Anamosa was on the board of the Friends of the Langley Library before joining the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation. She’s served as a Sno-Isle board trustee for several years.

The retired lawyer considers libraries vital.

“I think of libraries as that last bastion of the First Amendment,” she said. “We are making everything in print and media available to everyone. That’s really important.”

The district also is offering a short online survey asking for opinions on the budget options. It can be found at www.sno-isle.org/open-house/how-to-help.

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

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